JA office works to maintain order, fair judgement

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Eric Summers Jr.
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on the 81st Training Wing Judge Advocate office.

The Air Force holds its people to the highest standards, accountable to the core values of integrity, service and excellence, but nobody is perfect and sometimes Airmen make mistakes or poor decisions that bring serious consequences.

The 81st Training Wing Judge Advocate office military justice section reviews and processes each case then goes to court to determine what those consequences will be for the accused.

"Military justice is our system to make sure good order and discipline is maintained," said Capt. Sara Rathgeber, 81st TRW Judge Advocate office chief of military justice.

"My role in the office as chief of military justice is more to coordinate the military justice system," she continued. "It's not necessarily being the lead attorney on every prosecution team that goes into the courtroom, it's making sure all the courts martial, all the Articles 15 and all the things associated with the justice system are flowing smoothly and in a timely manner within the office. So I am kind of the go-between for our trial counsel, the (first sergeants) and commanders for Articles 15, (letters of reprimand) or discharges and the staff judge advocate."

An Article 15 is a tool commanders can use to rehabilitate Airmen and restore order and discipline.

"When an Airman commits a violation against the (Uniform Code of Military Justice) the commander has the option to use this to show that those actions will not be tolerated," said Tech. Sgt. Tina Hall, 81st TRW Judge Advocate office noncommissioned officer in charge of paralegal.

When service members are presented with an Article 15 they have the option to accept and have their commander go forward with the article for punishment, or they can elect to go to a court martial. "

A court-martial is no different than what you would see in a civilian court room," Rathgeber said. "We just have different grades of courts martial."

The three types of courts-martial are summary, special and general. The type of court, as well as charges pressed against an individual, is based on the evidence collected by the attorneys and law enforcement officials.

"There is a summary court, which is equivalent to a misdemeanor court on the civilian side." Rathgeber explained.

"A summary court is one step up from an Article 15," Hall said. "With a summary court there is no federal conviction, but if you're convicted in a special or general court there is a federal conviction."

The process for special or general courts martial begins when the accused member's squadron commander prefers charges, saying that he has looked at the evidence and that the person committed the crime.

For a special court-martial the evidence is then presented to the special court martial convening authority, the base commander, to decide if there is enough to present a trial.

"If it's a general court-martial it's going to go through the special court martial convening authority and he is going to give a recommendation to the general court martial convening authority, which is a numbered Air Force," Rathgeber said.

Before the general court-martial, the case first appears in an Article 32 hearing.

"The Article 32 is basically a chance to have an officer look over all the evidence the government has in the case and say 'yes we think there is enough evidence to find that this person committed a crime' and then in our case, pass the information to the 2nd Air Force commander, Maj. Gen. Leonard Patrick," Rathgeber said.

"It's like a civilian grand jury, we present all the evidence and say 'this is all we have, do we have enough to go to court,'" Hall said. "It's not deciding whether they're guilty or innocent or anything like that but instead deciding there is enough information that a jury could decide the case."

The convening authority then either decides that there is not enough evidence to go to court or if there is, he or she sends a referral back to the JA office.

"After you have the referral, the attorney schedules the trial and starts looking at all the evidence," said Rathgeber. "During this time, that attorney will be calling witnesses to interview them, finding out what they know, collecting documents and making sure that they have all the documents they use to prove the case.

"Once the court date arrives, that's when you go in and pick the members of the jury," Rathgeber continued. "We ask the members questions to select who should be on the jury to ensure there is no bias."

When the trial begins, the trial counsel opens, followed by remarks from the defense, then the counsel's opportunity for rebuttal and witnesses before the closing remarks.

"(Closing remarks) are when we get up and talk specifically to the jury or judge and basically put together the entire case and say 'this is why this person is guilty and let me go over the important facts that you need to consider when deliberating,'" the captain said. "Closing arguments can make or break the case a lot of times, but it's the opportunity to show exactly what you've been living and breathing since you've started preparing this trial."

If the jury finds the accused member not guilty, he is acquitted and the trial is over, Rathgeber said. But if he is found guilty, they move into the sentencing portion.

If a person is found guilty in a general court martial, depending on the charge, the max sentence can be total forfeiture of pay, confinement or a dishonorable discharge. If a person is found guilty in a special court martial, depending on the charges, the max sentence can be up to a year confinement, bad conduct discharge or two-thirds forfeiture of pay for up to one year.

"After all the paperwork is done it gets sent up to the NAF for review to make sure that that trial is legally sufficient and that we took all the right steps in the trial to make sure everything is completed and up to par," Hall said.

Just like the Air Force holds each Airman to the highest standards, the military justice section works to ensure its legal processes meet the highest standards.

"If something wasn't done properly they make sure the Airman gets a new, fair trial, even if that results in giving him a lesser sentence, or finding him not guilty," Rathgeber added. "We are more concerned that that Airman got a fair and just hearing."