Thursday, November 15, 2012

Weirdness in Military Justice

My morning research included a weird example of how courts-martial worked during the Vietnam era.  In this case, a 1LT and an SP4 were tried for executing an AWOL South Vietnamese soldier the Lieutenant suspected of being a Viet Cong sympathizer.  After telling the prisoner's wife that he would kill her husband in the morning, the Lieutenant let members of the platoon torment him through the night.  A witness account indicated that the guys harassing him said that they "were just having a little fun".  When the platoon left the village, the 1LT had a group of soldiers take the prisoner to the tree line and shoot him.  He justified this by testifying that he had received repeated pressure to not bring in EPWs and to increase his body count.

That may seem like standard fare for those of us who grew up with the Hollywood version of the Vietnam War, and in reading the public portions of the files of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, the crime certainly doesn't stand out as unusual.  What happened at the trial was the strange bit. A general court-martial found the First Lieutenant guilty of murder and conspiracy to commit murder.  However, when told that the charges carried a mandatory life sentence, the court asked the presiding judge for permission to reconvene.  The next day, they returned and acquitted the Lieutenant on the murder charge, but found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy to commit involuntary manslaughter.  Maximum sentences for those crimes were dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and allowances, and six years at hard labor.  The 1LT actually received six months at hard labor, lost $250 per month for six months, and was separated from the service.

This procedure was actually legal under the UCMJ, but it seems bizarre that a court would be allowed to change a verdict based on the sentence the defendant would receive after it had come back with a verdict.

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