MICHAEL Behenna should be home and enjoying the grandeur and drama of springtime in Oklahoma. Instead, he's in a military prison.
Behenna has long since served whatever time he may or may not have deserved for killing a man with terrorist ties in Iraq. He should be home, getting on with his life as a former U.S. Army officer. Instead, Behenna is in Leavenworth. And he could be there for another decade.
Behenna was a soldier fighting an enemy not in uniform, an enemy that plays by no rules of war. The rules that thrust Behenna into the military justice system were unyielding. They seem to override the protections granted civilians in this country. Application of those rules was superseded by a type of political correctness that demanded Behenna be made an example of. This was to show the leaders of a country that Americans liberated, with blood and guts, that we take seriously any proscribed conduct by our soldiers.
Behenna is serving a 15-year sentence for killing Ali Mansur in 2008. He was convicted of an unpremeditated murder in a combat zone. So far, his legal appeals have failed, narrowly, at several levels, but he has the support of a group of retired generals and admirals. Behenna and his family need support from fellow Oklahomans as well.
The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to consider the case. A key issue is the right of soldiers to defend themselves against a hostile opponent. That right today is murky, in part because of the Behenna case. This “defies common sense” and endangers service members, according to a legal brief filed on behalf of the retired officers. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also wants a high court review.
We don't know everything that happened that day in 2008. Behenna was returning Mansur, a detainee, to his home. In a remote area, prosecutors said, Behenna ordered Mansur to strip. He questioned him at gunpoint. Behenna said he shot Mansur because the prisoner threw concrete at him and lunged for his weapon.
Self-defense? The military justice system says Behenna had no right to it. He surrendered this right by aiming a weapon at Mansur. Even if Behenna were conducting an unauthorized interrogation and wasn't on a designated battlefield, the case should not turn on the loss of a right to self-defense. Soldiers sometimes make snap judgments. They sometimes disregard orders. Dakota Meyer was awarded the Medal of Honor for attempting to rescue fellow Marines in Afghanistan. Meyer disobeyed orders when he acted.
A key concern is the severity of the punishment and its political connection to a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq that was then being negotiated. The U.S. needed to show that wayward behavior by its troops would be dealt with seriously. But the bad actor in the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam served just 3 ½ years of house arrest in a case that involved the premeditated murder of 22 civilians. Behenna? He originally was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the unpremeditated murder of a terrorist.
We believe Behenna was convicted on insufficient evidence. His prosecution appears politically motivated. His sentence is disproportionately long. He's spent the past four years in prison. Whatever message that needed to be sent about what Behenna did has been received.
We won't make the case that he's a hero, but his case deserves a high court hearing. Behenna deserves mercy, for the sake of all soldiers faced with life-threatening situations — even when their own misjudgments get them into trouble.
1st Lt. Michael Behenna should be at home in Oklahoma. Instead, he just passed another day in a Kansas military prison.