High Percentage of U.S. Military Death Sentences Overturned

Of the 16 death sentences that have been imposed since the U.S. military made significant changes to its death penalty system in 1984, 10 have been overturned and all the defendants were resentenced to life. There have been no executions, and the 6 remaining cases are still under appeal. Military appellate courts overturned the sentences because of mistakes made at many levels of the military’s judicial system, including inadequate defense representation, prosecutorial misconduct, and improper jury instructions. Some observers attribute these widespread errors to an outdated system that has not enacted institutional changes to match current death penalty representation standards in civilian courts. Young, inexperienced lawyers are regularly assigned to represent capital defendants. David Bruck, a veteran defense lawyer and director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse, said, “If you have a system where … where the lawyers are always trying their first capital case, you’re going to guarantee the same kinds of mistakes … are going to be made over and over again.” A 2009 law requires the military to appoint qualified attorneys for terrorism suspects, but no such requirement exists for average service members who face criminal charges. Military officials interpret its 80% death sentence reversal rate not as an indicator of the need for reform but as a natural part of the natural appeals process.

Denny LeBoeuf, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, praised the spirit of new officers being willing to take up challenging cases, but cautioned that death penalty cases require years of experience: “If you look at the strength of the military, it’s an admirable quality in our military men and women that they have a can-do, make-do attitude. It’s a recognition that military conditions are not always ideal and a real leader steps up and figures things out,” she said. “That’s a great attitude in a lot of situations, but it is not protective of the standards that are necessary in capital cases.” Several branches of the military are taking steps to improve the quality of representation.

(M. Taylor, “Many death sentences in U.S. military overturned,” McClatchy Newspapers, August 28, 2011). See U.S. Military and Representation. See also STUDIES: Significant Racial Disparities Found in Military Death Penalty.