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48 Hours: Honor and Dishonor

Sgt. Brent Burke

Sgt. Brent Burke
Sgt. Brent Burke

(CBS) Over the years that "48 Hours" has been on the air, we have covered hundreds of criminal trials in dozens of states. But we've never covered a case being tried in a parallel justice system, as steeped in tradition as the civilian court system. This is the first time we've gone in depth on a court martial. And it is fascinating.

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Brent Burke was an Army Sergeant charged with killing his wife, Tracy, and her ex-husband's mother, Karen Comer. Two of Tracy's kids were witnesses. Four civilian trials resulted in four mistrials. So the Army stepped in and court-martialed Burke.

For those of you who have never seen a court martial, there are some surprises. I think a lot of people assume military courts, which are governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (known as UCMJ), are harsher than their civilian counterparts. In fact, defendants in military courts (known as "the accused") have some rights regarding what evidence is allowed that are broader than what's allowed in state or federal courts.

But I think what really struck us about the court martial we covered was how quickly it went. Anyone who's watched a criminal trial on the civilian side knows about the delays; the frequent sidebars, all the objections and arguments heard outside the presence of the jury. Sometimes trials may be delayed for weeks. In a court martial, the vast majority of issues are handled before the trial actually begins. Therefore, there are almost no delays. It was strange to hear almost no objections!

Of course the nature of jury duty is very different in the military. The accent is on DUTY. The jury in a court martial is called the panel. Soldiers are ordered to serve if selected. It is their duty. No excuses. Oh, and no hung juries either. While there are mistrials allowed in military trials, if a case goes to deliberation, there must be a verdict. It's easier to arrive at a verdict because, unlike in most states, the vote of a military panel does not have to be unanimous.

The court martial of Sgt. Brent Burke, which we cover in this week's broadcast, clearly points out the differences between the two systems. Why do we need a special code of law for the military? An expert we talk to told us it's because the military has obvious requirements and responsibilities that civilians don't.

Written by "48 Hours'" correspondent Richard Schlesinger

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