A year later, President Ronald Reagan reinstated capital punishment in the military. Of the 16 people sent to the military's death row since 1984, 11 have had their sentences overturned. Two of those decisions were taken by commanding generals. The other nine cases were overturned by military appeals courts over various questions about the application of law.
Unlike in civilian courts where prosecutors decide charges, a commanding general -- who has other duties -- decides whether a military defendant will face the death penalty. That general also can reduce a sentence.
It's one of the biggest differences with the civilian system and it leads to one of the major criticisms of the decentralized nature of the military judicial system, where each branch operates independently.
"Even if you have two identical cases, one being prosecuted by one commander at one base and other being prosecuted by a commander at another base, you may have different outcomes because the commanders may have different philosophies," said Dwight Sullivan, a former Marine prosecutor and judge who now works as a civilian attorney specializing in military death penalty appeals.
Such was the case with Curtis Allen Gibbs, a Marine who was sentenced to death in 1990 for killing and nearly decapitating a woman with a sword near Camp Lejeune.
A jury returned a sentence of death for Gibbs, but a commanding general overturned the decision and gave him life. At the time, the general cited a reluctance to authorize the execution of a service member during a military conflict -- the Persian Gulf War, according to published accounts.
"He didn't want to impose the death penalty, and it struck me as strange because the jury had heard and evaluated all the evidence and decided that's what he should get," said Guy Womack, a retired Marine prosecutor who helmed the Gibbs case.
As a result, Womack believes the problem lies not with military juries but rather with what follows: the commanding general and the appeals process.
Once the death penalty has been handed down, an appeal is automatic and eventually reviewed by the military's top court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces -- even if the service member doesn't want it.
"It's a very slow process, and I don't think they like the idea of confirming the death penalty," said Womack, who now works as a civilian attorney who specializes in defending military clients.
Today, the death sentences of all five men on the military's death row are either on appeal or under legal review.
"The process by which legal matters in the military are adjudicated are taken extraordinarily seriously by a professional panel of peers that weigh all matters and due consideration at their due course," said Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman.
If the Gulf War affected the Gibbs case, it may also have had a wider impact.
The 1990-1991 conflict was the first major deployment of U.S. troops since Vietnam and may have made the military switch its focus, says Catherine Grosso, who co-authored a study that examined the military death penalty system.
She found fewer death penalty cases brought by the military in recent decades.
"The important break point in the study is 1990," she said.
Grosso did not come to conclusions for why this happened in her study, which addressed racial questions.
But she told CNN that while legal changes in 1997 could have played a role by adding the option of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, it doesn't explain the drop in death penalty prosecutions before 1997.
That's where the buildup to and fighting of the Gulf War, from 1990-1991 may have played a role.
"Maybe that made the military focus in a different way," she said.
But Eugene Fidell, a former judge advocate who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, said there is "insufficient data to draw a broad conclusion."
"Anyone who commits multiple murders is a viable candidate for a capital prosecution, regardless of the setting," he said. "The more victims, the likelier."
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales pleaded guilty last month to avoid the death penalty for killing 16 Afghan civilians in Kandahar in March 2012.