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Court-martial results in death penalty sentence for sergeant

A court-martial is the military’s equivalent to a civilian criminal trial. For any readers that question the severity of penalties that might result from a court-martial, a recent story provides a stark reminder.

Specifically, an Army sergeant is facing the death penalty after being convicted for the murders of two fellow soldiers at a US military outpost in Kuwait. Although the sergeant petitioned for review of the case, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review his appeal. That means that the conviction and sentence will stand.

The sergeant has been involved in a long appeals process. The alleged crime occurred in 2003, and he appealed his conviction and death sentence through the military justice system, culminating in a review by the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.

The sergeant’s appeal was based on several grounds. However, only one was presented in the sergeant’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court: the procedure for identifying the aggravating factors needed to support a death sentence. A 2002 Supreme Court decision requires a two-fold process in a civilian criminal trial: (1) the legislature to enumerate the factors; and (2) a jury to determine if they were present in the specific case. In the military, in contrast, the Secretary of Defense promulgated administrative rules that list the factors in the Manual for Courts-Martial.

The sergeant’s appeal questioned whether the military's listing of aggravated factors was consistent with the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling. It is uncertain whether the ground would have been a winning one, since yet another Supreme Court decision authorized Congress’s power to delegate the identification of aggravating factors in military capital cases to the President.

There are different levels of courts-martial, to be sure. Yet even the lowest level can result in serious penalties to service member who has been accused of a crime. To protect your rights and maximize your defense, it is a good idea to consult with a military defense lawyer.

Source: CNN, “Supreme Court turns away challenge to death penalty sentence in fragging case,” Steve Vladeck, Oct. 3, 2016

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