Military trial set Tuesday for Dyess airman: Courts-martial process explained

Courts-martial process explained

ABILENE, Texas - The Dyess Air Force Base airman charged in connection to the Klapheke child death case is set to undergo a general court-martial Tuesday.

Senior Airman Christopher Perez, 23, is charged with adultery, child endangerment and dereliction of duty (i.e. allegedly failing to obey an order or regulation) under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Witnesses at his Article 32 hearing in October testified Perez was living with 22-year-old Tiffany Klapheke on base when her toddler Tamryn died of severe malnourishment and dehydration while her husband was deployed.

7th Bomb Wing Commander Col. Glen VanHerck recommended Perez undergo a general court-martial rather than a summary or special court-martial. The general court-martial is the most complex and carries the most potential for punishment.

According to the military's Manual for Courts-Martial, Perez could lose pay, face a bad-conduct or dishonorable discharge and/or a range of confinement if convicted.

Perez is entitled to free legal representation by the military but can pay out of pocket for a civilian defense attorney if he decides to.

John Young, a local civilian attorney, said he has defended several people in military proceedings alongside military defenders. However, none of his clients were recommended for a court-martial.

Young said military trials differ from civilian trials in two primary ways. First, there is a chain-of-command dynamic in the military courtroom.

"The jurors must be either senior non-commissioned officers or officers – none of which can have a rank below the rank of the accused," Young said.

Second, the charges can be broader in a military trial – for example, dereliction of duty.

"What constitutes dereliction of duty? And that can be many things," Young said. "Obviously in this instance, very serious consequences occurred and there may or may not be evidence to support that airman Perez was in fact derelict in his duty."

Young said it is absolutely crucial in any trial to have unbiased jurors.

"Any case involving a child – it's very difficult for jurors, for any of us, to not have emotional feelings to not have – for facts such as that to not have an emotional impact it's very difficult," Young said. "But I suspect that they will do their duty that they're called to do and make every effort to keep emotions out of their decision and follow the law."

Jurors for a general court-martial are selected by a convening authority rather than the prosecution and defense attorneys as in civilian trials.

Sentences including discharge, dismissal or one or more years of confinement are automatically reviewed by an appeals court unless the accused waives review.

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