Military News

Friday, December 04, 2015

All rise: NCO recounts experiences serving military justice system

Commentary by Air Force Staff Sgt. Sheila deVera
JBER Public Affairs


12/3/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- When we hear about a court-martial, curiosity often gets the best of us. What did this person do? What evidence is there to find this person guilty or not guilty?

All sort of thoughts go through my mind when I hear about it. Often, when I think of the military justice system, I feel uneasy.

Recently I had an opportunity to serve as a bailiff and was able to see how the whole military justice system works.

The week before the trial, I received quick guidelines about the responsibilities of a bailiff.

I remembered I was nervous on the first day. It's the same feeling you get when you are the new kid on the block and people are watching your every move.

I remembered the quick training I'd gotten from a paralegal outlining my duties.

"When the judge arrives, you say 'all rise,'" he said.

"When the jury panel members arrive, you tell the room to 'all rise.'"

See the judge, call the room. Got it.

See the jury panel members, call the room. Check.

Before the trial started, I assumed all parties would be present and that the counsel members would start their arguments like I normally see on screen. But there is more to a trial than what we see on TV.

There were other steps before the attorneys could present their arguments. The first order of the day was a pretrial hearing when both lawyers prepare evidence and witnesses, and file pretrial motions.

This is also an opportunity for the judge to settle any issues.

Once this was complete, the accused listened to the charges against him during the arraignment process. This also gives him a chance to enter a plea.

As the case slowly makes its way to trial, the attorneys went through a very long voir dire and challenges.

This was new to me. Not knowing much about the process, I asked the court reporter during a recess why they question each jury member. She explained voir dire is an opportunity for the attorneys to find out if the panel members can be fair and objective, and ensure they understand the accused is innocent until proven guilty.

The defense attorney and the prosecutors asked each one a series of questions.

When all parties agreed on jury selection, the judge instructed me, as bailiff, to dismiss four of the potential jurors.

I passed the news to the jury members and thanked them for their patience in the whole selection process.

When everything was set, the defense and the prosecutor stated their cases.

After a full day of calling witnesses to the stand, watching, and listening to both attorneys argue and provide closing arguments - I was intrigued. I felt both provided strong evidence and was thankful that I was not one of the jury members who would decide this Airman's fate.

Before the jury members were dismissed to begin deliberation, the judge reminded them the accused is presumed to be innocent, and the panel must be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt. A two-thirds majority of the panel is needed to find the accused guilty.

As I sat outside, guarding the door of the deliberation room for a few hours, I remember looking out the window, watching the world go by as darkness loomed. It seemed to parallel how an Airman's life and career hung in the balance. I reflected it might be his last night with his family, and the military chapter of his life coming to a close.

The judge instructed the panel members to get some rest; and they would resume deliberation the next day.

Early that morning, I did my normal routine: checked in with the judge, refilled the water container, and informed the judge that all parties were present.

After a few more hours of deliberations and voting: they had a verdict.

The accused was found not guilty, and I saw him hug his mom as she tried to hold her composure.

As the family of three walked away from the courtroom, I was glad to witness the general court-martial procedures.

The bailiff duty was long, but also very rewarding - because I saw someone put their faith in the military justice. It gave me a better appreciation of how the military justice works and to trust its system.

If there is another opportunity as a bailiff, I would not hesitate to volunteer again.

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