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.
Scott Behenna has compiled a listing of cases that underscore the disparity between his son's sentence and those of other soldiers and Marines convicted of unpremeditated murder. An example is an Army platoon leader who, after searching a residence in Iraq, shot and killed a teenager in front of the boy's father in 2004. The boy's hands had been zip-tied behind his back. The soldier later gave at least three false statements about what happened; there was no evidence of self-defense, nor an aggressive move by the boy.
That soldier was sentenced to seven years.
We're reminded of a different case. During the Vietnam War, Army Lt. William Calley was prosecuted for what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. Hundreds of men, women and children were killed by U.S. troops. He was convicted of the premeditated murder of 22 civilians and given a life sentence. That was quickly reduced to 20 years, and the secretary of the Army eventually cut it to 10. Calley wound up serving just 3 ½ years of house arrest.
Behenna has now spent the past four years of his life in the brig. If the point of his sentence was to send Behenna a message, we'd suggest it's been received. It's time that mercy and justice enter the equation.