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How Bradley Manning's Fate Will Be Decided

The soldier accused of giving files to WikiLeaks will likely face a court-martial -- an expert explains how it works.

Bradley Manning protest


 This week, Bradley Manning came one step closer to being tried for allegedly leaking a trove of secret American cables to WikiLeaks when a military officer made the formal  recommendation that Manning should face a court-martial on 22 criminal charges.

One of the counts, aiding the enemy, carries the possibility of the death penalty, but prosecutors have already  said they will not seek it in Manning’s case.

The recommendation this week was made to Maj. Gen. Michael Linnington, commander of the Military District of Washington, who is what is known as the convening authority in the case. The military justice system has important differences from the civilian system, so I spoke to Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, to explain the basics.

We’ve now had the investigating officer as well as another officer this week recommend a court-martial to the Military District of Washington commander. What’s the next step?

A convening authority, which is a general officer, will decide whether to refer the case to a court-martial. There’s no designated time frame for this, but I think it will be in the next couple of weeks. A court-martial is a military criminal court that will have serious punishment powers. There will be a military judge presiding over it, who is a uniformed lawyer. There’s a prosecutor. There’s defense counsel. Unless Manning waives the jury, there will be a jury of at least five people.

Who makes up the jury?

The jury is selected by the convening authority. It’s not random selection. The general will select the members; it’s supposed to be a blue ribbon group. They are supposed to be the best qualified people with respect to education, experience, judicial temperament and so on. Because Manning is an enlisted man, he has a right to enlisted representation on the court. That means that at least one-third of the jury would have to be enlisted men or women.

In the civilian trial setting, there’s usually a lot of argument over who sits on the jury. How does that work in a court-martial?

The same thing happens. There’s an opportunity for the lawyers on both sides to question the jurors — who are actually called “members” in a court-martial — to determine whether they are capable of acting impartially. Each side has a right to challenge a member not only for cause, but also peremptorily, in other words for no reason.

To convict a defendant in a non-capital case requires only a two-thirds vote of the members. How the vote breaks down depends on how many members there are. The minimum is five, but there’s something called the numbers game that the lawyers on both sides are aware of. That is, that you want to use your right to challenge a member in order to manipulate the size of the court to maximize the chances of either conviction or acquittal, depending on your perspective. The number slightly tweaks the percentage. Two-thirds of five members is four, meaning the government would need 80 percent to convict. Two-thirds of six members is also four, which means the government would need only 66 percent to convict.

What about the judge — how is he or she different than a judge in a civilian case?

Once the case is referred to a court-martial, and a judge is assigned, the convening authority’s power becomes subject to review, and a judge sort of takes charge of the case. Until that happens — until the case is referred to trial — the convening authority really rules the roost.

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