Clarice Covert, a civilian, killed her husband, a U.S. Air Force sergeant, at an English airbase. Covert was tried by a court-martial, convicted of murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Covert petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus on the ground that the Constitution prohibited trial of civilians by courtmartial or military tribunal. The District Court granted the petition and released Covert.
On direct appeal to the Supreme Court, the U.S. government contended that a treaty between the United States and Great Britain required, and that the Constitution permitted, U.S. courts-martial to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over crimes committed in Great Britain by members of the U.S. armed forces and their dependents.
The Court, while recognizing the government’s power to create courts-martial to prosecute military defendants, nonetheless held, based on historical analysis of protections afforded to civilian criminal defendants under the English tradition of civil liberties, the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, and the plain text of that document, that civilian criminal defendants are under all circumstances entitled by the Fifth Amendment to the protection of indictment by a grand jury and by the Sixth Amendment right to trial by a civilian jury. Analyzing the history of state practice, relevant case law, and the framers’ original intent, the Court concluded that a ‘‘deeply rooted and ancient opposition in this country to the extension of military control over civilians’’ mandated that Covert, although the spouse of an individual subject to military criminal jurisdiction, was a civilian not amenable to prosecution by courtmartial.
In affirming Covert’s release, the Reid Court elaborated the broader principle that all treaties and laws of the United States must comply with the provisions of the Constitution, strongly suggesting that the individual rights elaborated in that document are the supreme sources of law in our governmental framework.
WILLIAM C. BRADFORD
See also English Tradition of Civil Liberties; Grand Jury Indictment (V); Habeas Corpus: Modern History; Jury Trial Right; Military Tribunals; Rights of the Accused