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The Impact of Civilian Aggravating Circumstances on the Military Death Penalty: Another Chapter in the Resistance of the Armed Forces to the Civilianization of Military Justice, 1984-2005


Catherine M. Grosso


Michigan State University - College of Law

David C. Baldus


University of Iowa - College of Law

George G. Woodworth


University of Iowa - Department of Statistics & Actuarial Science

March 23, 2009

University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Vol. 43, No. 3, 2010
MSU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-13

Abstract:     
In 1984 the U.S. Armed Forces adopted a capital punishment system modeled after those prevailing in over 30 states. This empirical study of charging and sentencing decisions in 104 death eligible military murders from 1984-2005 analyzes the extent to which the administration of the military death penalty has followed the civilian model required by military law or whether practice has overridden the law and rejected the intended civilianizing influence.

After a brief period between 1986 and 1990, the charging decisions of commanders and the sentencing decisions of court martial members (jurors) transformed the military death penalty system into a dual system that treats two classes of death eligible murder quite differently and essentially nullified the 1984 changes. Since 1990 a soldier accused of a murder with a direct impact on the ability of military commanders to run an effective and disciplined military is significantly more likely to face a capital court martial and be sentenced to death than a similarly situated soldier accused of a murder connected to the military only by the identity of the defendant.

While many in the military have worked to incorporate the protections of the Bill of Rights such as those present in the 1984 reforms into military criminal justice, others have resisted each such change as unnecessary and a direct threat to the ability to run an efficient and effective military. This study documents contemporary resistance as manifest in charging and sentencing decisions. We conclude that a limitation of death eligible murder to those directly impacting military command and control could reduce the risk of arbitrariness in the administration of the military death penalty.

While this study has important implications for the military criminal justice system and adds to the work of others calling for limiting the reach of the military criminal justice system to crimes directly impacting the ability of military leaders to run an efficient and effective military, its value extends beyond the realm of military justice. It documents the power of individual decision makers to overrule the written law and to do so without disclosure or public debate. As such, it is a study of the law in action and the importance of context in understanding the influence of written law.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 51

Keywords: death penalty, criminal law, military

JEL Classification: K14,

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Date posted: August 5, 2009 ; Last revised: August 29, 2010

Suggested Citation

Grosso, Catherine M. and Baldus, David C. and Woodworth, George G., The Impact of Civilian Aggravating Circumstances on the Military Death Penalty: Another Chapter in the Resistance of the Armed Forces to the Civilianization of Military Justice, 1984-2005 (March 23, 2009). University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Vol. 43, No. 3, 2010; MSU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-13. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1367428

Contact Information

Catherine M. Grosso (Contact Author)
Michigan State University - College of Law ( email )
318 Law College Building
East Lansing, MI 48824-1300
United States
David C. Baldus
University of Iowa - College of Law ( email )
Melrose and Byington
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States
George G. Woodworth
University of Iowa - Department of Statistics & Actuarial Science ( email )
Iowa City, IA 52242-1409
United States
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