Summary Court Martial- A Fair Process? Or Foregone Conclusion?

Yesterday, I represented a soldier in a Summary Court Martial at Fort Campbell.  www.jamesphillipslaw.com or www.ucmjlawyer.com. Or, self help legal (invisiblelawyer.com).

His parents had hired me to represent him in the Summary Court Martial because they were concerned that he might be railroaded by his Chain of Command. His parents had good reason to worry.  Summary Court Martial (SCM) are dangerous business for the soldier.

An SCM begins when charges are preferred against a soldier.  What this means is that the soldier is dragged into the Commander’s office, read the charges, and told he will have 72 hours to get ready.  At the preferral, the soldier may be able to look at the packet of information, the allied papers, which will be considered as evidence against him. At some point within the next day or so, the soldier will be hustled over to the Trial Defense Service (TDS) to go over the SCM rights.  At his appointment with either a TDS attorney or paralegal, the soldier will be given a TDS information packet that will describe the basic rights he has at the SCM.  The TDS attorney will spend a few minutes talking to the attorneysoldier, answering a few basic questions and then he will be sent on his way and back to the command.  Since TDS is normally too busy to represent soldiers at SCMs, the soldier will have to go it alone.  The soldier does have the right to hire civilian defense counsel at his or her own expense.  Normally, this doesn’t happen, so the soldier, who has neither the rank nor authority, will be expected to stand up and defend themselves, without counsel, in front of a SCM Officer at what will essentially be a closed door and hidden proceeding. The SCM Officer, usually a captain, will have little to no legal training and will see this as a glorified Article 15, where the real issue is not guilt or innocence, (the soldier is guilty because he is at a SCM) but how much punishment needs to be inflicted on the soldier.

If the soldier does not hire a civillian defense counsel, at trial, the SCM Officer will read from a script.  They will review a packet of information (the allied papers) given to them by the brigade legal and after quickly running through a script with the accused soldier the SCM Officer will convict the solider and max him out according to whatever is the desire of the command.  Most of the evidence that will have been considered will be hearsay, or inadmissible and not competent for Trial.  The soldier will have been intimidated by the Summary Court Officer, convicted on incompetent evidence and have an overall feeling that the entire process is utterly and completely unfair.  The soldier will be right.

The problem is that this is not what the Army intended an SCM to be.  The SCM was created to take pressure off of the military judges and the military courts by allowing a lower level proceeding, that would still afford the soldier all of his basic rights.  At an SCM, the same rules apply as at a Special Court Martial or a General Court Martial.  The rules of evidence apply.  The ability to call witnesses at the trial on the merits and on sentencing both apply.  The ability to introduce evidence in defense and mitigation apply.  In the face of this evidence, the SCM Officer has e a duty to act neutrally and only weigh competent  and relevant evidence.  Because all of these legal rights apply, this is one reason that hiring a qualified civilian military defense attorney may be the most crucial decision when deciding whether to object to or consent to a Summary Court Martial.

More than any other military proceeding the civilian defense counsel has the biggest overall effect on a Summary Court Martial.  This is because at a Summary Court Martial the person that is most confused and feeling like a fish out of water is the SCM Officer. As military officers, they have probably never been around a trial or administrative hearing. They do not understand the law.  They do not understand the introduction of evidence and they do not understand the proper way to question a witness on the stand.  All of these things lead allow the civilian defense counsel to help guide both the SCM Officer and the outcome.  The civilian defense counsel in subtle ways can both befriend and harrass the SCM Officer into making a favorable decision for the accused soldier.

If the civilian defense attorney acts appropriately, he will quickly guide the presentation of evidence at Trial.  This is a huge advantage.  This will also give the civilian defense attorney credibility with the SCM Officer.

As an example of this, I had a case where my client had originally been accused of Rape.  He was a Sergeant First Class (E-7) and was accused of sexually assaulting on of his soldier.  I was originally hired to represent him at a General Court Martial. After the Article 32 hearing, the Article 32 officer recommended a lesser charge than Rape and that the referral be at the SCM level.

At the SCM, the proceeding was held in a tiny office.  The SCM officer and I were just a few feet from each other and the atmosphere was very relaxed.  I had been in the Army for 10 years, both enlisted and commissioned time, and have been deployed to Iraq twice.  The SCM officer was an infantry officer and so I began to chat with him until we were able to start swapping stories.  I relaxed him by assuring him that I wasn’t there to cause trouble and I would help him through the entire proceeding.  I also told him before we even began that the Government had done him no favors because all of the evidence in his allied papers would not be allowed into evidence.  I assured him that I wouldn’t make it hard, just would explain the problems as we got to them.

After we opened the trial, the SCM tried to introduce several sworn statements of witnesses.  The witnesses were not called, but were actually deployed at the time, so I explained this was hearsay and couldn’t be considered.  We did this with the DNA report, the rape kit, all of the pertinent evidence.  All of it was excluded as hearsay.  Then when the main accuser was called to testify I asked the SCM Officer if I could do the direct to make it go easier.  He agreed.  I then lead the accuser through direct, but did it from the defense prospective and not from a prosecutorial prospective.  Before closing arguments, I engaged the SCM Officer in a long conversation on what were the problems with the case.  At that point, the SCM threw out the script and decided that my client was not guilty.

The problem is that if my client went in alone he would now be an E-6 and would have lost huge amounts of retirement.  The SCM Officer would have looked at the packet given to him by the Government, and without cross examination or analysis would have just figured that my client was guilty.

For these reasons, any soldier that is considering going to a SCM should also consider consulting and/or hiring a qualified military civilian defense counsel.  Now here is the problem, there are very few attorneys that are qualified to represent soldiers at SCMs.  Make sure that the civilian attorney you consult with knows what he is doing and that he has lots of experience with Court Martials.  Most attorneys will be happy to take your money to represent you, but many don’t have a clue how a military proceeding works.  Civilian state court trial time does not translate well to the military.

These are the things you should find out about the civilian attorney: (1) how many SCMs has he done, (2) can he explain how an SCM works (both perils and positives), (3) can he explain why you should or should not object to trial by SCM, (4) how well does he know military law, and (5) finally, does he seem like someone you will trust and like.  If he meets these qualifications and you think he can help you, you should really consider hiring him before you go it alone at an SCM.

AWOL- A Crime? Or a Soldier Quitting a Job?

Absent Without Leave (AWOL).  www.ucmjlawyer.com and www.jamesphillipslaw.com.

We offer self-help legal for AWOL at invisblelawyer.com.  AWOL is a crime under Article 86 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  The crime itself is problematic because the question has to be asked, “is it really a crime?”  Oh, I know, you hard core military folk are going to disown me for this one.  I mean, here I am, a two time war vet, bronze star recipient, saying that AWOL may not be a  crime.

Now, for all my soldiers that are reading this because you are AWOL and looking for advice, you may just want to scroll to the end of the blog now so that you can get helpful tips for getting out of your predicament.

For all others, follow along, when soldiers go AWOL, they are usually  highly disenchanted with their unit.  Many times they have drug problems or family problems that are causing them to think irrationally.

I have found that there are generally two types of soldiers that go AWOL.  (1) The soldier who has been in for several years, is a junior NCO and has been to Iraq.  Many of these guys have just had it with their chain of command and due to PTSD issues or emotional problems just decide to disappear. (2)  The other type of soldier is the relatively new soldier, virtually a trainee, who doesn’t know how to put in for a voluntary administrative discharge, so he just leaves.

Most soldiers who go AWOL are using it as a means to get a discharge.   A civilian job allows the employees to quit.  I mean, it is reasonable for people to tell their boss to “take this job and shove it.”  The military doesn’t allow you to do that, but really, why should the military be different than civilian employment?  The argument of course is that civilians don’t go to war.

But, this difference creates a problem.  Do we really want people, in an all-volunteer military, to be forced to come to work everyday?

As a legal assistance officer at Fort Campbell, I remember when Fort Campbell had a policy that any homosexual soldier would be out of the Army within 72 hours.  This policy was a result of the Winchell incident, when a soldier was beaten to death for being a known homosexual.  But, many soldiers, who didn’t want to be in the Army, would claim that they were gay in order to get out of the Army.  At Fort Campbell, this was a quick and painless ticket home.  They would get an honorable discharge and an annotation on their DD 214 stating they were discharge for Homosexual Conduct. What was a  little stigma between friends?  The reality was that the soldiers that really wanted to get out of the Army would do and say anything to get out.

For me, I think there ought to be some way that soldiers can get administratively discharged based upon several voluntary reasons.  Soldiers that don’t want to be in the Military should not be there.  A soldier with a bad attitude can drive the whole unit into the ground.

Col. Joseph Anderson, now General Anderson, was the Brigade Commander for 2BCT, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).  Once we got back from Iraq, he had a policy of quickly removing soldiers that were guilty of doing drugs from his units.  He was less interested in court martialling them than he was getting them out of the unit.  The longer a soldier with a drug problem was in the unit, the more disgruntled he would become.  Eventually, the soldier’s bad attitude, use of drugs and insubordination would eventually become like a cancer and spread to other members of the unit.  Getting them out was a means of keeping the unit disciplined and clean.

AWOL has the same effect on a unit.  A soldier who has been AWOL for any period of time becomes “civilianized.”  He has normally decided that he no longer wants to be in the military and he is a cancer within the unit.  He is generally insubordinate.  Many times he no longer has military clothing.  He doesn’t have money. He lives in the barracks and has limited access to the military post’s amenities.  He will hang out with other soldiers that are disgruntled and they will begin to ferment within the unit.

Generally, the AWOL soldier can also be rehabilitated within society as a whole.  Many times they are smart young guys that need more time to mature.  As they become older and more mature, they will regret their bad choices and begin to try to fix their transgressions from their younger days.  I see this when these guys come back years later, grown up and matured, wanting to fix their military records.  They have to go through the slow agonizing process of submitting an application to a Military Discharge Review Board.

Now, for you AWOL guys.  Here is the best advice I can give you.  TURN YOURSELF BACK IN.  Get back within military control and get this thing over with.

The longer you were gone, the more likely you will need an attorney.  But, each military unit has some discretion on how they deal with each and every AWOL.  This means that some units will discharge the soldier with little to no hassle.  Others will be quite severe.

Once you turn yourself into the unit, do not give a statement.  You have Article 31, which means you have the right to remain silent and you have the right to an attorney.  You should not make any statements to the chain of command because even though it seems pretty simple, if they take you to a Court Martial, they still have to prove the charge and usually it is easier to prove a charge when a guy has admitted it than not.

Also, you will be entitled to a Trial Defense Attorney.  You should take advantage of this.  AWOL punishments vary from post to post, so your local Trial Defense Services attorney will be able to give you the lay of the land and help you decide what your best course of action will be.  Many times the TDS attorney can get you administratively discharged rather than have to go through the pain of a Court Martial.