The conduct of members of the United States military is governed by the military’s own law, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). For military members, the crime of rape can be (and has been) punished by death.
The age of consent for members of the military is 16 years of age. This means that a member of the military who has sex with a person who is under the age of 16 has committed a crime. Even having consensual sex with a person under the age of 16 is a criminal act.
The UCMJ Article 120 contains statutes regarding rape and carnal knowledge. Subparagraph (b) states that a person who commits an act of sexual intercourse that is not rape with a person who is not their spouse and is not yet 16 years old is guilty of the crime of carnal knowledge.
Again, the crime of carnal knowledge is committed when a person has sex with the consent of a person under the age of 16. Imagine a person has sex through the use of force, threats, or putting the person in fear or who engages in aggravated sexual abuse or abusive sexual contact or who takes indecent liberty with a child. In that case, they are also guilty of other, separate sexual offenses under the UCMJ.
Is the Punishment Death?
If an active member of the military has non-consensual sex with another person, they can be charged with the crime of rape. The perpetrator could potentially be sentenced to death. However, if the sexual conduct is consensual and involves a person under the age of 16, the crime is known as “carnal knowledge.”
The UCMJ section prohibiting sex with a person below the military age of consent, i.e., carnal knowledge”, is very brief. The law does not list a specific punishment for the crime but only states “such penalty as the Court-Martial may direct.” This probably means for consensual sex that any punishment short of or other than the death penalty can be imposed. This might include a term of imprisonment and dishonorable discharge.
A court-martial (plural “courts martial”) is a special military court in which the military enforces its Uniform Code of Military Justice. Or the phrase can refer to a trial that takes place in such a court. A court-martial has the authority to determine the guilt of members of any branch of the U.S. armed forces. This would include the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and the Space Force.
Members of the armed forces, of course, are subject to military law. If a member of the military is found guilty of a crime under the UCMJ, the court-martial sentences them as provided in the UCMJ.
Although military juries serve a similar purpose to juries in civilian cases, the jurors are known as “members,” and a jury is referred to as a “court member panel.” A jury in a court-martial has some rights and responsibilities that are unique. Also, they do not participate in every court-martial. Some courts-martial deal with misdemeanors, and they do not use a jury. But others who deal with more serious crimes do use a court member panel.
The defendant has the right to choose whether to be tried by a military judge, a panel of officers, or a panel of enlisted personnel. If the defendant goes with a panel of members, the members decide on the verdict and impose the sentence as well. This is different from civilian criminal trials in which the jury usually only renders the verdict, and a judge sentences the defendant who is found guilty, with some exceptions.
The charges against a military defendant are brought by a “convening authority,” who is an officer. This officer selects the members to serve on the panel of members. The convening authority is supposed to put members on the panel who are qualified on the basis of their experience, length of service, training, age, education, and the like.
They can choose as many as they like, but there should generally be at least 5. If it is a case in which imposition of the death penalty is mandatory in the event the defendant is found guilty, the panel must have at least 12 members.
What if the Parties Are Close in Age?
Unlike the law in many states, the UCMJ does not have any provision making an exception for parties who are close in age to each other. For example, if an 18-year-old service member has sex with a youth who is 15 ½ years old, they are committing a crime, again, even if the younger partner consents to the conduct.
However, when the younger person turns 16, they are old enough to consent to sex, and it is legal to engage in consensual sexual conduct with them.
Is There a Legal Defense?
The UCMJ allows mistake of fact as a defense in a case of carnal knowledge. If the victim is, in fact, over the age of 12, and the offender reasonably believed that he or she was 16 or older, then this fact is a valid defense. If the perpetrator can prove this, it can be a successful defense to the crime of carnal knowledge. The accused has the burden of proving their defense by a preponderance of the evidence. Notice, however, that if the victim is under the age of 12, mistake of fact is not a defense.
If the defendant meets this burden, the prosecution then must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the affirmative defense did not, in fact, exist. Only if the prosecution meets this burden can the defendant be convicted of the crime.
In a criminal trial, the prosecution has the burden of proving that the accused person, the “defendant” in legal terminology, committed the crime with which they are charged beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard of proof is the highest in the law.
Proof beyond a reasonable doubt basically means that the jury should think that there is no reasonable explanation for the evidence other than the guilt of the defendant. Another way of putting it is that the jury should be virtually certain that the defendant is guilty before they pronounce a sentence of guilt.
Proof by a preponderance of the evidence is a lower standard of proof. That is, it is easier to prove something by preponderance of the evidence than it is to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt. It is the standard of proof that applies in civil trials. It is also the standard of proof for defense claims in criminal trials, including court-martial.
Under the preponderance standard, the burden of proof would be met when the defendant convinces the judge or panel of members in a court-martial that it is more than 50% likely that the claim of a defense is true.
Do I Need the Help of a Lawyer for My Carnal Knowledge Charge?
If you are an active member of the military and you have been charged with the crime of carnal knowledge, you want to consult an attorney experienced in military law.
The military has its own code of criminal law, and you want an attorney who specializes in this area. LegalMatch.com can connect you to such an attorney. Your attorney can protect your rights and represent you in negotiations or at a trial if that should become necessary.