2019 Changes

Ringing in change (for military justice in 2019)

There have been substantial changes to the UCMJ and the Manual for Courts-Martial that will take effect in January.

One of the most consequential may be the change in the member panel size and voting numbers (the jury).

The UCMJ started with a requirement of a minium of three persons on the jury for a special court-martial and five for a general court-martial.  This contrasts with the minimum of six that had been set by the United States Supreme Court.

In cases like Ballew v Georgia, 435 U.S. 223 (1978), and Burch v Louisiana, 441 U.S. 130 (1979), the Supreme Court decided that at least six jurors was required.  The Court looked at research into jury and small group dynamics that show the smaller the jury the less discussion and therefore an increased likelihood of conviction.The Court admitted that empirical studies "raise significant questions about the wisdom and constitutionality of a reduction below six."  The findings that raised significant questions were:
(1) smaller juries have less effective group deliberation, so they are more error-prone (in part because jurors exhibit greater reluctance to make important contributions and, as a group, the likelihood increases that they will fail to overcome members' biases);

(2) smaller juries produce less accurate results and greater variability. In criminal cases, the risk of convicting an innocent person grows;

(3) as juries become smaller, verdict consistency diminishes, in part because people with minority viewpoints tend to abandon them (again, in criminal cases, this harms the defense);

(4) minority groups have much reduced chances of being represented in smaller juries; and

(5) as the Court finally conceded, some scholars (like Zeisel and Saks) exposed "methodological problems tending to mask differences in the operation of smaller and larger juries."
See Jill P. Holmquist, Does Jury Size Still Matter? An Open Question. The Jury Expert, 1 May 2010.

The military and military appellate courts consistently resisted this Supreme Court law that the Sixth Amendment required at least six persons voting unanimously.  They have done so without any showing of any special need for an exception. 

The other problem is that the military jury only required three-quarters of the jury for a vote of guilty, compared to unanimity in the civilian jury.  We spent years challenging those numbers in litigation and politicking.  All without success.

In 2019 that will change--still not right--but better.

The new jury will be:
  • At least four for a special court-martial.
  • At least eight for a general court-martial.
  • At least 12 for a trial in which the death penalty is authorized.
And,

A vote of at least three-quarters will be required for a guilty finding.

There are many factors that go into a recommendation to have a jury or judge trial: what type of case do you have, what are the strengths and weaknesses, what are the defenses, and what is the track record of the judge or of juries at a particular installation.  (For example, Fort Bragg is notorious for a high conviction and sentence rate.)

I'll be interested to see if more accused's are encouraged to elect a jury trial.