Military lawyer/blogger sheds light on military justice system
Published: June 15, 2010
I came across Dwight Sullivan’s writing almost by accident. I was following a military trial for an article series. Often bumping into confusing terminology and protocol, I realized the military justice system differs sharply in some ways from the civilian justice system. I also learned that some high profile media outlets were in the same boat I was in.
Kay B. Day
Doing a Web search for information, I found the military justice blog CAAFlog (Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces). There’s a descriptive in the blog header that told me the blog creators weren’t some dry group of government attorneys. The subheader said, “Military justice blogs are to blogs as military music is to music.”
Once I began to read there, I was captivated. Sullivan, who works as a civilian lawyer for the Air Force in Washington, was blogging the trial I was following. And he was doing it in serial format, covering each day’s proceedings in minute detail. Not only that, this attorney could write. I knew many others were following his coverage because of the comments. And I knew why—each day was like one a segment in a movie mini-series. You can’t wait to tune in to see what happens next.
I e-mailed Sullivan to ask him if he’d talk to me. With the attention media pays to the military at the moment, I figured many writers could benefit by knowing about resources that are useful whether we’re writing fiction or nonfiction.
I learned that Sullivan is a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He told me he blogs for CAAFlog, but he’s also the co-author of Military Justice: Cases and Materials [Lexis Nexis, 2007] and he’s the co-editor of Evolving Military Justice [Naval Institute Press, 2002]. His work has also appeared in legal journals and in The Washington Post Magazine.
Like Sullivan’s trial coverage, his answers to my questions were fascinating and informative.
Q&A with Dwight Sullivan
Q. Writers may not realize there are major differences between the military justice system and the civilian system. Can you sum up one or more of the most striking differences?
A: The biggest difference between courts-martial and civilian criminal courts is the role of the “convening authority” in the military justice system. The convening authority is a military commanding officer who makes many of the key decisions in court-martial cases. For example, military prosecutors don’t have final say over what crimes service members are charged with; convening authorities do. The military equivalent of a jury isn’t randomly selected; the convening authority handpicks the jurors. And military plea bargains are formal contracts between the accused and the convening authority.
Q: Movies like A Few Good Men and TV programs dramatize military trials, but how accurate are they when compared to the real thing? Any big gaffes stand out that you can think of?
A: [Screenwriter] Aaron Sorkin’s sister was a Navy JAG (Judge Advocate General). Maybe as the result of her influence, many scenes in A Few Good Men are reasonable dramatizations of reality, though Sorkin took considerable artistic license. (For example, there’s no such offense as “Conduct unbecoming a Marine.”) On the other hand, the TV show ‘JAG’ was so absurd that I found it unwatchable.
Q: What motivated you to blog about your profession?
A: SCOTUSblog inspired our blog. My co-bloggers and I were (and remain) devoted followers of SCOTUSblog, which covers the United States Supreme Court. We thought the military justice system needed something similar. I failed in an attempt to convince an academic organization to start a military justice blog. Three of my friends and I then launched CAAFlog, which was basically a public version of emails we used to swap about military justice developments. But our site is amateurish compared to SCOTUSblog, so we never accomplished our original goal.
Q: If a writer is covering a military trial or proceeding, where can she go to find expertise?
A: I just had to find a good resource to familiarize a summer legal intern in our office about the military justice system. The best short overview of the system I could find was in Michael J. Davidson’s book, A Guide to Military Criminal Law, which was published by the Naval Institute Press in 1999. It’s out of print now. A few used copies are available online.
Q: Do you believe major media understand the military justice system and cover it accurately?
A: Major media outlets don’t seem to pay much attention to the military justice system at all. A few reporters, such as Kate Wiltrout of The Virginian-Pilot, cover enough courts-martial that they’re quite good at it. But in those rare instances when major media outlets do cover courts-martial, the correspondent is usually unfamiliar with the military justice system and ends up producing shallow or, worse, inaccurate reports. A recent Stars & Stripes article about military death penalty cases made more than a dozen errors. If Stars & Stripes, which specializes in covering the military, makes basic mistakes about such things as the size of a court-martial, there’s probably little hope for media outlets that cover Punxsutawney Phil more often than they cover military trials.
Q: You recently blogged a high profile trial, using vacation time to cover the proceedings. Why did you do that?
A: The three recent prosecutions (and acquittals) of Navy SEALs arising from an alleged assault of a detained Iraqi terrorist were fascinating cases. The first two trials were held in Iraq, so attending them wasn’t an option. But the third court-martial was tried at Norfolk, within easy driving distance of the Annapolis area, where I live. We had been following the cases on our blog and our readers’ comments reflected sharply divergent views of the cases. I wanted to see and analyze the evidence myself. The trial lasted longer than originally expected, so I had to leave a day before the verdict. But I had seen the prosecution’s entire case and enough of the defense case to draw a firm conclusion: The evidence came nowhere near proof beyond a reasonable doubt that any of the accused SEALs had committed a crime. One significant difference between writing a blog post and more traditional media coverage is that I was free to express that opinion in my reporting.
Q: What prompted you to choose this profession?
A: I became a lawyer in the Marine Corps through the kinds of weird coincidences and unlikely events that probably drive most people’s career choices. I’m now a civilian lawyer in the military justice system for the same reason that assassins always give in the movies when asked why they do what they do for a living: I’m good at it.
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Kay B. Day
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International, The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To learn more about Kay Day, see www.kayday.com. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.