A Few Good Men: A Former JAG Officer’s Perspective

I spent over four years as an Active Duty Judge Advocate with the United States Air Force prior to transitioning into civil practice.  As with most JAGs, A Few Good Men holds a special place in my heart.  On the whole, the movie is fairly accurate  from a JAG perspective but it does go astray on a couple big-ticket items.

Let’s start with the accuracies.  I suspect that they hired a former JAG as a consultant to assist them in the script.  They get a lot of the little things right.  For instance:

—     Demi Moore’s character calls for an “802 conference” after she strenuously objects to admission of expert testimony (for a second time).  That’s military lawyer speak for a conference with the judge outside the presence of the jurors.

—     They get the two accused Marines to trial very quickly.  Although I don’t think the movie ever gives an actual time line, it seems like just a few months from the crime to the trial.  That type of speed is actually something upon which the Military Justice Systems places a premium.  In fact, when a Military Member is placed in pre-trial confinement, Rule 707 of the Rules for Courts Martial requires that person be brought to trial within 120 days.

—     The tension between Cruise’s laid-back character, Lt. Kaffee, and the two Marines on trial.  JAGs are military officers and expected to act that way, if for no other reason than to retain the respect of other military members.  In real life, if a JAG acted as aloof as Lt Kaffee, he’d get an earful from many different angles.

—     The Marine Military judge is not wearing a traditional robe during the trial. That’s actually correct for a Marine.  Marine and Navy judges don’t don the robe (although Air Force and Army judges do).

So what did they get wrong? First, you know how Tom Cruise’s character, Lt. Kaffee, is portrayed as a wet behind the ears defense attorney who’s never seen the inside of a courtroom? Well, in real life, the military would never appoint a person with no trial experience to be a defense counsel.  Nearly all defense counsel in the Military start out in the prosecutor’s office for a couple of years where they earn plenty of trial experience.  A JAG usually is only considered for a defense counsel position after he has gotten a number of trials under his or her belt.  The rationale is that the military wants to make sure that if any mistakes are being made (and hopefully they aren’t), those mistakes don’t end up putting an innocent person in jail.  Moreover, Lt. Kaffee certainly wouldn’t have been lead counsel.  In the serious criminal cases, there is a Senior Defense Counsel appointed to take the lead, and the younger defense counsel sits second chair.

Second, speaking of inexperience, do you remember when Lt. Kaffee alludes to his suspicion that his superiors put him on the case because military higher-ups didn’t want the case going to trial?  Well, in real life, defense counsel fall under a separate chain of command that runs straight up to the 3-Star General in charge of the JAG Corps.  Non-JAG military officers have no authority to directly influence defense counsel.  The Military recognizes that defense counsel need to be free from undue influence and the perception of undue influence.

Finally, although the two accused Marines have the main charges against them dismissed, they are still found guilty of “Conduct Unbecoming A Marine” and are discharged from the military.  The only problem? No such crime exists under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).  Article 133 of the UCMJ makes “conduct unbecoming an officer” a crime.  But the two accused Marines were enlisted, rather than officers, and couldn’t have been convicted under Article 133.  Whoops.

In spite of these few in accuracies, the movie is still near and dear to me.   Who doesn’t appreciate a movie that makes a mostly boring career exciting?  I’m sure mall cops feel the same way about Paul Blart: Mall Cop.