Commentary by 2nd Lt. Jason Gabrick
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
Do you swear to faithfully and impartially try, according to the evidence, your conscience and the laws applicable to trial by court-martial, the case of the accused?
You may go your entire career without taking part in a military court-martial. It’s been 10 years since I enlisted and, until this month, I had never been in a court room.
It all begins with a comprehensive jury candidate questionnaire. The base legal office identifies a pool of potential jury members months in advance to forward the questionnaire.
When I received the questionnaire months ago, I was excited at the prospect of finally seeing how a military court-martial works. I eagerly filled out the questionnaire and expected to hear something back soon. Months went by with no word.
I had all but forgotten about the possibility of sitting as a juror in a court-martial when I received an e-mail from Staff Sgt. Kendra Mauldin, the NCO in charge of Military Justice for the 50th Space Wing Legal office. The e-mail explained that I had been selected as a potential juror and needed to be prepared to report in my service dress uniform within 20 minutes of receiving a phone call on the morning of Feb. 11.
The night before, knowing nothing about the trial for which I may soon be a juror for, I researched the different types of courts-martial: summary, special and general.
A summary court-martial generally serves to remedy relatively minor offenses and consists of one officer who essentially acts as the judge and jury. A special court-martial, on the other hand, is a more traditional representation of what we’ve all seen on TV. A special court-martial consists of a military judge, prosecutor, defense counsel and at least three jurors. A general court-martial is regarded as the most serious and, in certain cases, can carry with it the death penalty and consists of a military judge, prosecutor, defense counsel and at least five jurors or solely a military judge if the accused elects.
The upcoming trial would be a general court-martial.
When the phone rang Monday morning, I rushed down to the make-shift waiting room for potential jurors to discover that nearly 20 other officers had also been selected. Considering a general court-martial only needs five jurors, I figured there was no chance I would actually be selected.
The first day consisted of waiting, standing, sitting and more waiting. The entire potential jury pool was asked to line up in order and file into the court room on the first floor of Building 210. The jury pool was so large that there weren’t enough seats. The legal office brought in an extra row of chairs to be positioned in front of the jury box.
After the oath was administered, we received a single sheet of paper with only one paragraph: the charge.
Without knowing anything beyond the charge, we began the voir dire process. Voir dire, a Latin term meaning “to say what is true,” is a process of questioning the jury pool, first as a group and then individually, to discover biases or other hindrances to the prospect of judging fairly and without outside influence.
“The purpose of voir dire is to determine if any court members have biases that may create an unfair or impartial trial,” said Capt. Lorraine Sult, chief of civil law for the 50 SW Legal office and trial counsel during this court-martial.
The group began to dwindle. First, a series of questions poured out from each side and then from the judge. Then, depending on your answers to the dozens of questions, you were taken individually, so as not to taint the jury pool, to be questioned about your possible bias.
“Sometimes we don’t realize we have biases, however slight they may be,” said Sult. “Even when there are no actual biases, the court will consider implied biases — a person may not actually have a bias, but to an outsider looking in, it might appear that they do.”
After hours of entering and exiting the court room, waiting and questioning, a jury was finally selected. From the more than original 20 potential jurors, voir dire had left only 10 and I was to be the lowest-ranking member of an all-officer jury.
We would be charged with deciding the fate of one of our own uniformed members.
With the entire first day consumed by voir dire, we went home late in the evening and still knowing nothing more about the case than the charge. The judge, Lt. Col. Christopher Schumann, issued his first set of instructions: do not discuss the trial with anyone.
“Not even your dog,” he said.
The second day of the trial began with each side’s opening statement. The judge instructed us that the opening and closing statements would not be evidence, but rather one side’s hypothesis.
“Opening and closing statements are our first chance at persuasion; as formal as trials are, each side’s ‘theory’ of what happened needs to make human sense,” said Capt. Justin Lonergan, an Area Defense Counsel assigned to F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo., and defense counsel during this court-martial.
As the prosecution and the defense masterfully wove the details of the case into a comprehensive narrative, it was clear that this was not going to be easy.
“We try to help juries interpret lots of specific facts in a way consistent with our theories,” said Lonergan.
We were instructed that our duty as jurors would be to decide, based on the credibility of those testifying, the evidence, our individual conscience and the law, whether or not the accused was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
After a day and a half of testimony, evidence admission and expert witnesses, each side again presented their individual hypothesis in the closing arguments.
“Closings are carefully scripted, because it is not just what we say, it is how we say it,” said Lonergan. “Strong, emotive words can emphasize minor facts and turn them into major points and grammar and sentence structure can minimize bad facts. Essentially, closings help the attorneys give significance to the sum of the evidence, even if some piece of evidence was not apparently significant at the time it was offered.”
The judge then instructed us on deliberation. Rank was to hold no weight. A decision sheet was given to the foreperson and, we were instructed to deliberate until all were satisfied and ready to vote.
Following hours of heated debate, we took a vote. As the lowest ranking member of the panel, it was my responsibility to collect and count the votes.
Although the details of deliberation are forever sealed, I can tell you what I took from that room: our military justice system is complex and thorough.
Being a part of this panel of deciders may have been a matter of circumstance and time, but I would urge you to watch a court-martial if the opportunity ever presents itself. It may give you, as it has for me, a better understanding and also a certain reverence for the judicial system that serves our military.