WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Army 1st Lt. Michael C. Behenna was granted parole Wednesday and will be released from a military prison next month after serving five years for killing an Iraqi man during an interrogation.
The five-member Army Clemency and Parole Board unanimously recommended Behenna for parole. He is expected to be discharged from the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., on March 14 and return to his home in Edmond.
This was his first year of eligibility for parole.
The decision is a major victory for Behenna, his family, elected officials from Oklahoma who watched over the case and thousands of people around the country who donated money to his defense fund, wrote letters to the Army and their congressmen, and, in some cases, even traveled to the Washington area for parole board and appeals court hearings.
Behenna's mother, Vicki Behenna, who has waged with her husband, Scott, a relentless battle to have her son exonerated and freed, said Wednesday, “We go between tears and laughing. I'm just so thankful. I'm just so very very thankful. It's wonderful.”
Strong parole plan
Behenna's parents and his brother Brett appeared last month before the U.S. Army Clemency and Parole Board outside Washington and presented the members with a 400-page report that included a letter from Michael and letters of support from Gov. Mary Fallin, the Oklahoma congressional delegation, law enforcement officials, members of the military and veterans.
The family told the board that Michael had a job waiting at a western Oklahoma cattle ranch and would take classes at Oklahoma State University in ranch operations.
Lt. Col. Alayne Conway, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army, said Wednesday, “The recommendation of the Army Clemency and Parole Board was based on a thorough review of Mr. Behenna's case. While Mr. Behenna was denied clemency, members voted unanimously in favor of parole based on a number of factors, including a strong parole plan with family and community support.
“Mr. Behenna will have served five years confinement and will continue to be under parole supervision for 10 years.”
The shooting and appeals
Behenna, 30, was convicted of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone and assault for the 2008 killing of Ali Mansur, a member of a terrorist cell that operated in the same area as Behenna's platoon. Behenna suspected Mansur was involved in the planning of an improvised explosive device that killed two of his platoon members and two Iraqi civilians.
Behenna was ordered to take Mansur home after the Iraqi was questioned by Army intelligence officials.
However, he drove him to a remote area, forced him to strip naked and questioned him at gunpoint before shooting him twice and killing him.
The Army charged Behenna with premeditated murder, claiming he had executed Mansur, but Behenna testified at his court martial that he shot Mansur in self-defense after the man lunged for his gun.
Behenna was sentenced to 25 years in prison, though that was reduced immediately by five years, and the Army Clemency and Parole board granted another five-year reduction in 2010.
Behenna's conviction was upheld unanimously by the Army Court of Criminal Appeals. The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the nation's highest military appeals court, narrowly upheld the conviction, ruling that Behenna had effectively lost the right to self-defense in the situation he created.
The U.S. Supreme Court appeared to give serious consideration to hearing Behenna's appeal but ultimately declined to review the case last year.
Behenna appeared before the parole division at Fort Leavenworth's disciplinary barracks late last year. He wrote a letter saying that he regretted killing Mansur and was sorry for Mansur's family. He said he was only trying to protect his soldiers from future attacks; and he said he was sorry for the impact the shooting of Mansur had on his soldiers.
Behenna was officially dismissed from the Army last month. The secretary of the Army signed his dismissal, which had been pending during Behenna's appeals.
‘I think he's in shock'
“They came and got him about 7:30 this morning and gave him a letter to read,” Vicki Behenna said Wednesday. “The letter said his request for clemency had been denied but that his request for parole had been granted.”
She said, “I think he's in shock. I started crying immediately when he told me. Of course over the phone I can't see his expression. He would kind of go, ‘Yeah, it's good, mom. It's good.'”
She said he immediately expressed concern about two fellow inmates with similar convictions serving longer sentences.
Vicki Behenna, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, said the family would continue to seek further reductions in the sentence; there was no need, she said, for him to have supervised parole for 10 years.
Gov. Mary Fallin, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, and Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, have been monitoring the case closely for years, carefully avoiding any comments about guilt or innocence while working to ensure the appeals and requests for clemency and parole were fair. They have vouched for Behenna's prospects outside prison while advocating for sentence reductions and parole, and have sent staff members to attend hearings.