Representing Yourself at a Court Martial

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Q: Can service members represent themselves in a court martial for murder?

Service members in need of a skilled court-martial defense attorney for murder and homicide-related charges generally decide between two options: a free attorney assigned from the military defense counsel or a skilled civilian military defense attorney.

Such serious charges come with the most serious punishments if convicted. Having an independent, civilian military defense attorney with a proven track record of success on your side means having an attorney with the time, experience, and resources to mount an aggressive defense on your behalf. On the other hand, the free attorney appointed for you is often overworked, inexperienced, and overwhelmed. Not only that, but he or she is employed by the organization that has levied the charges against you. So, when the stakes are high, choosing the right attorney is critical.

Technically, there is a third option, but it is understandably very rarely exercised–defending yourself against the charges. And as a recent former Marine learned the hard way, there is a reason people virtually never make that choice and often regret it when they have.

Not even one hour into his murder trial, a Marine reportedly changed his plea and “agreed to plead guilty to murder and allegations that he used a gun and a knife to kill” an Army reservist. The reservist with whom he reportedly had a sexual relationship was allegedly stabbed 44 times and shot in the head twice in a motel room. The body was reportedly found wrapped in a sleeping bag in the back of his car about two weeks later.  It was the sleeping bag–a style sold on base—which ended up being the clue that broke the case open and led to the Marine’s arrest.

Evidence against the accused allegedly included that:

  • the accused’s credit card was allegedly used to buy the sleeping bag
  • the accused’s credit card was allegedly used to pay for a hotel room from which a comforter was later missing and in which the victim’s blood was later found
  • the gun believed to be used in the attack on the victim was allegedly found in the accused’s car
  • a journal in the accused’s barracks room reportedly included a section saying “Tonight I had to kill for the third time. It was a guy named [victim].”

However, the journal also reportedly included writings that he “had to do it to ‘survive in my fight’ against something a called ‘the Musgrove organization’ which he said had plotted against him for years had entered his mind and stolen his intelligence.”

After reportedly spending some time in a state hospital due to being deemed “mentally incompetent to stand trial” he was later found competent and granted permission to represent himself. Now he faces up to 51 years to life in prison.

Even when the evidence against you seems daunting, a private practice attorney can sometimes mitigate a pre-meditated murder charge down to a manslaughter charge. Even if the charges can’t be mitigated, the legal consequences may be. Sometimes factors such as mental health conditions, combat history, PTSD, substance-abuse, or a good service history can affect the punishment if convicted. Most importantly, a civilian military defense attorney will fight for your rights in court.

It is never in your best interest to represent yourself. And as noted, there are many valid reasons why a free court-appointed defense attorney is not likely the best alternative either.

If you are, or believe you might be, facing a military court-martial, the experienced and aggressive court-martial defense attorneys at Elkus, Sisson & Rosenstein can help you. Contact us today for a free consultation.

From our offices in Denver and Colorado Springs, Colorado, we represent service members of all ranks, in all branches, anywhere in the world.

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