A Reflection on the Experiences and Difficulties Faced by Defending Officers
June 6, 2018
Series 1.3: General Court Martial: Pleading Guilty or Not Guilty
January 30, 2016
This article aims to elucidate the process of pleading guilty or not guilty in a general court martial (GCM), so as to provide accused military personnel and their Defending Officers (DOs) with a clearer picture of what to expect.
I. Start of trial
The judges will be seated at the bench at the front of the courtroom. Military offences are heard by a Panel Court Martial consisting of three judges – the President of the GCM (usually an officer of LTC rank or even a district judge at the State Courts on reservist duty) and two other members.
The Military Prosecutor is a legally-trained member of the Singapore Legal Service. The accused’s DO or lawyer will be seated beside the Prosecutor. The DO must be in smart uniform, stand up when spoken to, and address the court formally at all times. He should have with him a case file containing any documents he wishes to tender into court.
The accused persons whose cases will be heard that day will be arraigned in the dock. Each accused person will be accompanied by an escort (either enlistee or specialist rank), who will stand directly behind him. The accused will answer when his name and NRIC are read out, and the court will then proceed to hear his case.
The court will introduce the names of its members on the panel, and ask the accused if he has any objections to them. At this point, the accused may object to any member on the panel (except the President) and will be given the opportunity to make statements in support of his objection, or to call on any other person to do so.
Once this is over, the court will explain to the accused that if he chooses to plead guilty, sentencing will be meted out that same day, whereas he if pleads not guilty, the court will adjourn to deliberate the matter. The court will also explain that the accused may call character-witnesses if he pleases. The accused’s charge will then be read out. If the serviceman and his DO do not raise any objections to the charge, the court will then ask the serviceman how he would like to plead – guilty or not guilty.
II (a). Serviceman pleads “guilty”
Step 1. Admitting to statement of facts
The Military Prosecutor will read out the statement of facts – this includes facts relating to the charge: e.g. circumstances in which the offence was committed, facts illustrating the gravity of the offence, and factors that may mitigate or aggravate the accused’s case. The accused will be given a copy of this statement.
The Court will then ask the serviceman if he admits to the facts. The serviceman may admit to them, or even enter certain corrections (provided the Prosecutor agrees to this).
Step 2. Court states its finding (guilty or not guilty)
If the serviceman has chosen to plead guilty, it is very likely that the Court will similarly enter a ‘guilty’ finding. However, the Court may choose in some situations not to accept his plea (e.g. where it believes that he does not understand the nature of the charge and the effect of his plea, or is not satisfied that he is truly guilty, or in situations where the accused is liable for the death penalty).
Step 3. Prosecutor informs Court of matters affecting severity of punishment
The Prosecutor may or may not choose to do so, depending on the case itself. If he does so, the Court may ask him to call witnesses in support of his statements. These witnesses will be open to further cross-examinations and re-examinations.
Step 4. DO enters mitigation plea
The DO will then be given the chance to read out his Plea in Mitigation. The mitigation plea is crucial as it gives the accused’s DO (or lawyer) an opportunity to try to reduce the severity of the accused’s punishment as much as possible. The accused may also call upon character-witnesses to give evidence in support of his mitigation. If the accused wishes to personally say anything to the Court after this, he may do so (e.g. assuring the Court that he will behave himself in future).
Step 5. Court moves on to next cases; adjourns for sentencing
It is common practice for our military courts to consecutively hear all of the cases for that day, before adjourning to deliberate on the appropriate sentences all at once. When the Court has made its decision, it will re-open to deliver all of the sentences together.
II (b). Serviceman pleads “not guilty”
Step 1. Court asks the accused if he wishes to apply for adjournment
The accused may apply for adjournment if: (i) any regulation relating to procedure before the trial takes place has not been complied with, thus prejudicing the accused, or (ii) if the accused has had insufficient opportunity to prepare his defense. Of course, the accused must adduce evidence to support his application. The court will only grant the adjournment if it finds it necessary in the interests of justice.
Step 2. Admitting to statement of facts
Same as Step 1 of the “Pleading Guilty” process (see above).
Step 3. Prosecution presents its case
The Military Prosecutor may call witnesses to give evidence in support of his case. As with normal civilian trial procedure, the witnesses are open to cross-examination and subsequent re-examination. Once all of this is complete, the Prosecution’s case is closed.
Step 4. Accused may submit ‘no case to answer’
This may take place if the accused believes that Prosecution has totally failed to prove its case, and that consequently, he should not even be required to raise a defense. If the accused chooses to do so, the Court may adjourn and announce its decision later in open court. If the Court agrees that there is truly ‘no case to answer’, the accused will be acquitted of the charge. However, if the Court disagrees, then it will ask to hear the Defense’s case.
Step 5. Defense presents its case
The DO (or lawyer) will now have the opportunity to give evidence in support of the accused’s case. This includes the calling of witnesses (similar to Step 3 above). Once this is complete, the Defence’s case is closed.
Step 6. Closing addresses
Both the Prosecutor and the DO will submit their closing addresses, which usually sum up their respective cases and reiterate why their respective arguments should prevail.
Step 7. Summary by judge advocate
The judge advocate (typically a Singapore lawyer or judge who has served in the Singapore Legal Service for at least 5 years) will summarise the evidence and advise the Court on the law relating to the case and any special finding that it may make.
Step 8. Court adjourns to make its decision
The Court will adjourn and announce its decision at a later time in open court. If the accused is found not guilty, he will be acquitted of the charge and released. However, if he is found guilty, then the series of steps under the “Pleading Guilty” section will take place (see “Pleading Guilty” section above, Step 3 onwards).
III. Post-trial avenues
If for whatever reason the accused is not satisfied with the Court’s decision, there are two options open to him:
Firstly, he may appeal to the Military Court of Appeal (MCA). This will require the GCM which had presided over the case to write a judgment stating the grounds for its verdict. The serviceman must then submit a petition of appeal outlining the arguments which support his appeal. A date will then be fixed for the MCA to hear the appeal.
Alternatively, he may submit a petition to the Armed Forces Council (AFC) within 14 days from the date of the judgment on his case. The AFC will review the findings and has the power to substitute the existing charge or sentence for a different one, and may even quash them. It also has the power to order a retrial under the MCA if necessary.
An accused may choose to do both of the above simultaneously, but must be aware that any decision made by the MCA has final authority.
The DO should either assist with the accused’s wish to pursue post-trial avenues, or inform the S1 (Manpower Branch) of the accused’s request so that the matter may be followed up.
 As opposed to a Judge Court Martial for civil offences (e.g. misuse of drugs, etc).