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Michael Behenna's attorney argues for reversal of conviction, says Edmond soldier didn't get a fair trial

Army Court of Criminal Appeals hears oral arguments in controversial case.
BY CHRIS CASTEEL, Modified: December 10, 2010 at 5:02 am •  Published: December 10, 2010

— In a critical hearing for 1st Lt. Michael Behenna, the Edmond soldier's attorney argued Thursday that Behenna's 2009 conviction for unpremeditated murder should be overturned because key evidence was withheld and the judge failed to give the jury proper instructions.

Jack Zimmerman, of Houston, told the Army Court of Criminal Appeals that Behenna's claim of self-defense would have been supported by a forensic expert who wasn't called to testify.

Zimmerman, who was also Behenna's trial attorney, said the trial judge mangled the instructions he was supposed to give regarding self-defense to the point that the jury couldn't have possibly understood what to evaluate.

But a military attorney countered that there were no trial errors serious enough to warrant a reversal in Behenna's case.

Army Capt. Madeline Yanford told the panel of three Army colonels that Behenna had no legitimate claim of self-defense since he was dressed in full battle gear and pointing a loaded pistol at an Iraqi man who was naked and unarmed.

Behenna, 27, is serving a 15-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., for killing Ali Mansur in 2008 in Iraq after questioning him about terrorist activities and his possible role in planting a bomb that killed two members of Behenna's platoon.

The oral arguments on Thursday marked the second important event this month in Behenna's case.

Last week, Behenna's parents, Scott and Vicki, of Edmond, urged the Army Clemency and Parole Board to suspend their son's sentence, or at least reduce it to the point that he would be eligible for parole immediately. A decision on that could come later this month.

Behenna's sentence for unpremeditated murder in a combat zone has already been reduced twice, from the original 25 years.

A decision from the appeals court on the fairness of his trial could take months, Vicki Behenna said after the arguments.

Several members of Behenna's family attended the arguments on Thursday, as did friends and people from out of state who support his cause, including Beverly Perlson, of Chicago, who started the group Band of Mothers to support her own son and other soldiers.

Behenna's judicial appeal focuses primarily on aspects of his self-defense claim, including questions about whether prosecutors failed to disclose key evidence and whether Behenna could actually claim self-defense under the circumstances.

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