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Mercy, justice overdue in Michael Behenna case

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: February 6, 2013

ON Thursday, 1st Lt. Michael Behenna goes once again before the Army Clemency and Parole Board to ask for a reduction in his prison sentence. It's the latest step in a fight Behenna and his family have no intention of abandoning, nor should they.

Behenna, 29, of Edmond is serving 15 years at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., for killing a suspected terrorist in Iraq in 2008 during an unauthorized interrogation. He initially was sentenced to 25 years for unpremeditated murder in a combat zone; that has twice been reduced.

Behenna shot a man named Ali Mansur, who was suspected of being involved in an attack that killed two of Behenna's platoon members. Behenna was told to take Mansur back to his village, but instead he took the man to a deserted area, forced him to strip and questioned him at gunpoint. During his 2009 court-martial, Behenna claimed self-defense, saying he shot the man twice after Mansur threw a piece of concrete at him and lunged for his weapon.

Two appeals for a new trial have been rejected, most recently last summer when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces voted 3-2 to uphold the conviction. Both courts said Behenna essentially lost his right to self-defense when he pointed his gun at Mansur, and that he couldn't reclaim that right unless Mansur escalated the conflict or attacked as the soldier tried to withdraw.

In last summer's ruling, the court said the judge in Behenna's court-martial had given erroneous instruction regarding Behenna's right to self-defense, but that the error wouldn't have affected the outcome of the trial. Behenna's lawyers are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Behenna is one of the so-called Leavenworth 10, a group of soldiers and Marines who received particularly long sentences for their offenses in combat. Most were convicted from 2007-2009, when the United States was trying to get a Status of Forces Agreement signed with the Iraqis. At the time, Iraqi leaders weren't happy with the U.S. military's lack of prosecution for alleged war crimes. Behenna's parents, Scott and Vicki, can't help but wonder whether the sentences given their son and the others at Leavenworth were meant to help get the SOFA completed. It's a valid concern.

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