What Is A Court Martial And How Does It Work?

What Is A Court Martial?

This page is intended to inform you of the stages of a court martial.  Click here for information on the consequences of a court martial.

A court martial is the term the military uses for criminal trials. The military has three levels of courts martial depending on the level of severity: Summary, Special and General, with General being the most serious level. The remainder of this article will focus on Special and General Courts Martial.  For a discussion about Summary Court Martial, go here.

Pre-court Martial Process

A commander or commanding officer orders a criminal case to a court martial.  This is usually after an investigation has been completed and a the commander has received advice from a military attorney. Before a commander can order a case to a General court martial, that commander must first send the case to a hearing where the accused has the right to attend, with counsel, and present evidence in his or her defense. This hearing, called an Article 32 hearing, can be waived by the accused.

Pre-trial Confinement

After an alleged crime has been committed, an investigation usually begins. During this investigation, if the commander believes that the accused will commit further misconduct or not appear at trial, the commander can order that the accused be placed in restriction or even pretrial confinement. Any pretrial confinement will be served in the military’s Brig or confinement facility.  If this happens, the accused has the right to a hearing before a neutral military officer to determine if the commander’s decision was reasonable. The accused has a right to have an attorney assist them at this hearing. If the accused does serve pretrial confinement and is later sentenced to any jail time, time served in pretrial confinement will be credited towards any sentence to jail.

Will I Be Able To Make Bail

No, there is no bail in the military criminal process.

Stages Of A Court Martial

These are the stages of a Special or General Court Martial. Each process is discussed in further detail below:

1. Assignment of Attorney

2. Arraignment

3. Discovery and investigation

4. Motions

5. Plea Negotiations

6. Trial

7. Appeals

1. Assignment Of Attorney

After the investigation is concluded and the commander has ordered the case to a court martial, the local military legal office will assign an active duty military defense counsel to assist you for free. This free attorney is assigned to all active duty members ordered to court martial–rank or income does not matter.

Although most legal offices won’t provide you a free military lawyer until after the court martial has been ordered, servicemembers who learn that they are under investigation should seek IMMEDIATE legal assistance before making any statements or decisions Those under investigation can either go to the legal office and seek help or call a civilian military attorney. At King Military Law, we are available 24/7 to provide free initial assistance to those being investigated.

2. Arraignment

At arraignment, you will appear at a hearing before a military judge with your defense attorney where you will be formally notified of the charges against you and asked to enter a plea. In most cases, your defense attorney will advise you to plead “not guilty” and request a jury trial. You’ll have the chance to change your plea later, if you decide that is best. Until then, a “not guilty” plea preserves all of your rights and gives your legal team the chance to conduct their own investigation, review “discovery” and help you decide whether or not to go to trial.

3. Discovery And Investigation

“Discovery” is the process of getting evidence and information from the other side in a court case. Before trial, the prosecution is required to turn over all evidence it has against the accused or that it plans to use at trial. During this process, your defense team will receive the government’s investigation against you.

Independent of the discovery process, your legal team SHOULD explore whether you have any possible defenses. They will also explore other issues that could affect your case. A good defense investigation can often result in favorable evidence for use during negotiations with the commander or during trial and is a CRUCIAL aspect of your attorney’s job. The military defense offices employ some investigators and the military judge can order the government to assign an investigators to your case if your attorney can convince the judge that justice requires that. At King Military Law, we utilize seasoned private investigators who are recently retired law enforcement detectives and retired FBI agents. Any tests you need or experts to assist your defense will be paid for by the government.

Do We Have To Give Discovery To The Prosecutor?

Anything you tell your attorney or other member of your defense team is privileged, and will never be disclosed to the prosecutor or anyone else, except with your permission. If your case goes to trial, however, your attorney will have to first show the prosecutor any other evidence that your attorney plans to use in your case.

4. Motions

Prior to trial, there may be one or several motions hearings. A motion is a formal request that a military lawyer makes to the judge. Most motions are written, and include arguments why the judge should grant the request. Motions are made for many reasons, such as a request that the judge order the government to pay for certain witnesses, an order that the judge exclude or permit certain evidence, or even a motion to dismiss the charges prior to trial. After one party makes a motion, the other side has the chance to respond in writing to the motion. Once both sides have responded, the judge will hold the hearing, at which you and your attorney will both be present.

5. Plea Negotiations

Before your case goes to trial, your attorney may discuss a “deal,” to avoid trial. “Deals,” also called “plea agreements,” are between the accused and the commander (also called the “convening authority”), where you agree to do something (plead guilty, cooperate with the government, etc.) in exchange for the convening authority doing something (dismissing charges, limiting your sentence, etc.). Most court martial cases are resolved through deals. However, at King Military Law, we believe that an aggressively fighting the prosecution at trial is the default and have seen that strategy result more often in better outcome for our clients. We will advise you to “deal” only when we are certain that is in your absolute best interests. Your civilian military lawyer will help you make a decision, but you–and only you–decide whether to accept a deal.

6. Trial

If you do decide to go to trial, the U.S. Constitution and the UCMJ guarantee you the right to a trial by jury, which the military calls “members.” At trial, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty. You are not required to prove you are innocent. If the prosecutor does not prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt, you must be found not guilty. However, a good trial attorney will have conducted an in-depth investigation and be prepared to challenge all aspects of the prosecutor’s case and even be prepared to offer evidence to show your innocence.

An accused may choose to be tried before a jury consisting of officers or (if the accused is enlisted) a jury of officers and enlisted. Three fourths of the jurors must agree on guilt. If not, the verdict is not guilty. Also, an accused can be elected to be tried by a judge alone. Whether to be tried by a jury with enlisted members or a military judge alone is an important strategical decision that an experienced trial attorney can help the accused make.

At trial, some decisions, like whether to testify, are yours to make after advice from your attorney. Other decisions, involving legal strategy and the way that your case should be presented, are for your attorney to make after discussing it with you. You may need to insist that your attorney keep you well-informed about all aspects of the trial. You should be a partner, not a spectator, at your own trial.

Jury Selection

Once the trial starts, and if you selected a jury, the lawyers will select a jury. During this process, called “voir dire,” the lawyers and the judge ask the members questions to determine if the members are able to be objective or if there is any other reason the member should not serve.

Opening Statements

After a jury is selected, each side will get to make a statement to the jury about what the lawyer thinks the case is about, what the evidence will be, and what they want the jury to decide.

Prosecutor’s Case

After opening statements, the prosecution presents all of its evidence to the jury. This is done by calling witnesses and showing evidence to the jury about the charges. After the prosecutor questions a witness, your attorney will have the chance to ask that witness questions. This is called “cross-examination” and this task requires meticulous preparation and skill.

Defense Case

After the prosecution completes this presentation, your attorney will have the chance to call witnesses and present evidence. The defense does not have to present any evidence. If it does, the government will be able to cross examine these witnesses. During this phase, you will have the right to testify if you choose to do so. If so, the prosecution can cross examine you in front of the jury and negative evidence about your previous conduct or background may become admissible.  For this reason, whether or not to testify is an extremely important decision that should be made only after consultation with your attorney.


If your attorney presents a case, the prosecution gets a chance to “go again,” but only to rebut any evidence offered by your attorney.

Closing Arguments

When both sides have completed their presentations, each side gets a chance to tell the jury what they think the evidence showed and try to persuade the jury how it should decide. This too is a critical phase of the trial where the accused needs to have an experienced lawyer who knows what works during closing arguments. The prosecutor “argues” first, then the defense, then the prosecutor gets a final chance.

Jury Instructions

If you selected a jury, the judge will tell the jury what the law is, and what questions they will have to answer before they can find you guilty.  Lawyers for both sides will have a chance to help the judge choose what instructions to give.

Jury Deliberations

After receiving the Judge’s instructions, the jury retires to the deliberation room to deliberate. The jurors have all of the evidence admitted at trial and will discuss the case for as long as they wish and then vote by secret ballot. With few exceptions, they may only vote once and at least three-fourths of the jurors must agree on guilt. If less than three fourths agree on guilt, then the verdict is not guilty.


Whether you plead guilty or are found guilty after a trial, your sentencing case will begin immediately. If you have chosen a trial with a jury, you may also choose that the jury decide upon your sentence. If you do not choose that the jury decide your sentence, you will be sentenced by the military judge. There are significant differences between sentencing by military judge and sentencing by the jury. This is another important decision you will need an experienced defense counsel to assist you in making.

The Sentencing Hearing

Despite your choice, a sentencing hearing will happen next at which the prosecution can offer evidence about your crime to support a harsher sentence. This evidence often includes “victim impact evidence” where any victim of your crime may explain what impact that crime has had on the victim. As during trial, once the prosecution is done, your lawyer will have the opportunity to present evidence to support a lighter sentence, including evidence about your background. The sentencing hearing is conducted much like the trial, with witnesses called to testify and lawyers making closing arguments about the sentence.  If you choose to do so, you may testify at the sentencing hearing and can even do so in a way that the prosecution may not cross examine you.

7.  Appeals

Unless there is a mandatory minimum sentence (such as in rape cases), the judge or jury can award you a sentence of no punishment all the way to the maximum allowed by law. If you receive a sentence that includes jail time, you will likely be taken from the courthouse to the local brig to begin that term. You may serve your time at a local brig or you may be transferred to another confinement facility within the United States.

It is likely that you will not receive pay and allowances while confined but, especially if you have dependents, there are opportunities to ensure your pay and allowances go to your family for a period of your confinement.

Depending upon your sentence, your conviction may be appealed. The appellate process is extremely important and should not be ignored as it may result in your conviction being overturned and you being released from confinement. However, your active duty military attorney will not be able to act as your appellate attorney. This is another good reason to consider a civilian trial attorney with appellate experience. The appellate process is complex but you can learn much more here.

Clemency And Parole

If you receive a sentence to confinement, you may seek clemency or parole. Again, this is a complex process that you need an experienced attorney to help you fight through. Go here for more information on clemency and parole.

Finally, What You Need To Know Right Away:

We hope this information was useful in informing you about the court martial process. One final important note: If you think the military suspects you of committing a crime, consider refraining from discussing your case WITH ANYONE EXCEPT YOUR ATTORNEY–this includes your family, work mates, and friends since all of those individuals can be forced to testify against you. If your command or investigators ask you questions about the allegations, you have a right to decline to answer questions and to have an attorney assist you before you do so. Protect yourself and EXERCISE THAT RIGHT! At KML, we’re available 24/7 for a free consultation to provide you immediate help through this process. Please give us a call if you think we can help.

King Military Law: Decades of Experience in YOUR Corner–When Experience Matters Most

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Jess SackettJess Sackett
20:19 15 Sep 23
Mr King recently defended my daughter for misconduct. His defense ended with a unanimous board decision clearing my daughter of that charge. Mr King was tenacious and unrelenting in her case. His staff are true professionals and highly skilled and experienced in preparing the cases. If you or someone you know needs a lawyer who will fight for you Mr King is the one you want in your corner.
Liv SLiv S
07:58 06 Sep 23
My journey with King Military Law began when my Navy Reserve Center falsely accused me of committing a crime but failed to notify me until nearly a year had passed after said crime. I was literally looking at losing everything I had ever worked towards the 16 years I had spent in the military to include a burgeoning career in the healthcare sector, my security clearance, my G.I Bill benefits, ect. If you think that situation can’t get any more stressful, try searching for legal counsel who will treat your case with the utmost importance instead of just a money grab. Thankfully, I found King Military Law quickly and was sold from the many 5-star reviews to Don’s impressive resume, and Kasheta’s prompt response to my initial query.During the consultation, Don did not shy away even after I explained the details of my rather complex case. In fact, he seemed to relish in the challenge of it all. Once retained, he and the rest of his legal team immediately began working various angles of my case and even provided further support by helping me navigate through several legal forms provided by my command to ensure that none of my rights were signed away.As it is the Navy Reserve, I had to wait several months for my Administrative Separation Board to convene; however, Don and his legal team always answered any questions that I had or dealt with any situations that arose in a timely manner and kept me in the loop as new details emerged.To say I was beyond stressed out the weekend of my Administrative Separation Board is an understatement, Angela’s positive demeanor and Don’s encouraging words were greatly appreciated. Don is a talented legal force and well versed in proceedings, his eloquence and extensive knowledge of military law is clear. However, what stuck out to me the most is the moment when the opposing counsel launched a particularly catty and rather unwarranted personal attack on my character. Don immediately but gracefully rebuffed his attack, providing a compelling and moving argument in which he showered me with praise and related similar experiences he had in the navy to my case in order to appeal to board members on my behalf.Thanks to King Military Law, I was able to win my case and can finally relax for the first time in nearly a year. I can’t thank the exceptional legal team (Don, Kasheta, Angela, and Ashley) enough for their tireless efforts, they’re absolute consummate professionals who truly care about their clients and will always go that extra mile for them. I HIGHLY recommend King Military Law to any service members in need and seeking out legal counsel.
Eddie RobinsonEddie Robinson
02:35 04 Sep 23
Mr. King & his associates (Ms. Kasheta) were very responsive and caring to me and my son's case. They explained in terms I could understand, they were timely, and they were caring. My son had serious charges against him and I am hundreds of miles away on the East coast and very scared. He was able to be there to see my son and let him know he had someone on his side. I know we pay for attorneys but you want to feel comfortable with your choice. My son is coming home free & clear. You will be very satisfied with King Military Law when you just can't be there yourself. THANK YOU MR KING & STAFF. posting from : Alethia
Hailey PorterHailey Porter
15:24 30 Aug 23
King Military Law saved my best friend's life and career. The Navy likely illegally separated a close friend of mine with 14 years of service, at the time, as a Sailor. As was I, she was stuck overseas in Afghanistan in 2020 due to the travel ban Gen Miller initiated to prevent personnel from entering and leaving Theater. She wasn't able to fulfill her naval obligations due to the ban. She fought tooth and nail to come back into service and went through MEPs for a second time to continue serving. The Navy again tried to ADSEP the sailor for a separate reason, and that's when she hired King Military Law. If my friend was given her charges she would've lost her medical career, intelligence career, and at this point 16 years of active service. I was present for her ADSEP board and watched King Military Law in action. The process was extremely nerve-racking. The recorder wasn't pulling any punches about my friend's character they were trying to portray to the board. King Military Law's kindness, professionalism, and strategy saved her life. They helped her beat a case that typically the service member wouldn't win. I 10/10 recommend King Military Law. For the first time in 2 years, my friend is able to truly rest and breathe.
Bryce BeeckmanBryce Beeckman
04:26 30 Aug 23
Don is absolutely amazing, I cannot thank him enough for how much he helped me out with my case. He knows the Navy legal system inside out and has a ton of experience. If it weren’t for him I would have never been reinstated. My chain of command literally tried to rail road me, twist my story, and even tried to tell me that it was illegal to get legal representation, but Don worked with me every step of the way. Before contacting Don I spoke with other lawyers and they did not care at all, and didn’t even listen to me and my case. The JAG even blew me off and told me that I was going to loose, didn’t even want to help me out, but Don did it, and got my rank back. I’m so incredibly grateful that he had my back. Don is the way to go for anything legal dealing with the Navy, hese #1 in my books.
Dina TrujilloDina Trujillo
04:46 15 Aug 23
Where do I begin? This will be a bit lengthy as I want to share my experience King Military Law. There aren’t enough words to express how grateful, blessed, and completely honored we are to have had Don King and his team representing my Marine. A few months ago, my son found himself in a very difficult, very scary and extremely stressful situation. A parents worst nightmare. My son was being FALSLEY accused of of a very serious crime. My son had no chance to speak his truth, and was immediately guilty in the eyes of command with absolutely no chance for a positive outcome. This was extremely heart wrenching to a mother who 100% knows without a doubt that her son is innocent, it completely broke me and tore me apart. There was nothing I could do. Once Don heard my sons case he immediately took action. Don ensured that my sons rights were protected. Don protected my Marine when I could not. Don made sure that my son would not get screwed out of what he was entitled to, since my son was a few months from completing his enlistment.Don fought for my boy, presented facts and had these serious charges dismissed against my son, all without having to go to court martial. Don believed in my son from day one and relentlessly fought for him.Don is caring and compassionate and genuinely cares. While going through this stressful situation, Don made sure to reach out to my Marine a few times a week to check in with my son to make sure he was mentally and emotionally doing well. Don kept us updated throughout the process and we always knew what to expect. In the end my son was separated under honorable conditions and is now home. All which never would’ve happened without Don. Don saved my sons career and ensured that my son could have a successful and bright future in the civilian world.I promise that you will not find another Military Attorney with the experience and knowledge that Don has, just take a look at his resume. Don is a warrior who will run circles around anyone. Thank you so much Don and Kasheta for everything! Forever thankful.
Rancell GonzalezRancell Gonzalez
06:29 08 Aug 23
This guy has the best legal team in the nation, hands down. All odds were against my best friend, another co-worker, and myself. Somehow, he managed to win every single battle. Don King literally fought for us 24/7, it did not matter to him whether it was the weekend or late at night. Don always answers the phone provides support through stressful times. Don is a winner, what can I say. I will always be forever grateful that I hired this man. When you go to court with him, you will see that you didn't waste your money and time, but you invested it. This guy awesome, I would hire him a 10000000000000 times if had to because I know he will win.
Kiki WhiteKiki White
00:27 13 Jul 23
Mr. King went above and beyond during our consultation. He was professional, knowledgeable, and very thorough. We went over the 30 minutes. Mr. King did not try to rush me off the phone. This is an attorney who truly cares for a client or potential client. I would highly recommend retaining Mr. King as an attorney. Thank you so much for your assistance Mr. King!
Jeovani StouteJeovani Stoute
02:47 05 Jul 23
Mr. King provided advice for a pending legal issue I am facing. His experience, professional demeanor, and care is unmatched.
Leslie PuikLeslie Puik
01:03 07 May 23
There aren't enough words of high praise to express our appreciation for Don King of King Military Law. He and his very qualified staff Kasheta and Angela took care of our needs like we were their only clients. They are all highly professional, superb communicators, responsive, and thorough. They are caring, compassionate and patiently listen to and address every concern as though they were helping one of their family members. Don excels at helping others understand the processes of the law. He educates his clients so that they can navigate toward the best possible solution and outcome. We will be forever grateful for the entire team's effort to help our family through the most challenging time of our lives.I highly recommend King Military Law.

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