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Military court upholds Michael Behenna's conviction, sentence

Lt. Michael Behenna, of Edmond, was seeking a new trial from the appeals court on charges of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone.
BY CHRIS CASTEEL Modified: July 27, 2011 at 5:41 pm •  Published: July 27, 2011

— A military appeals court has upheld Lt. Michael Behenna's conviction of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone, unanimously rejecting his claims that he received an unfair trial for killing an Iraqi man he suspected of being a terrorist.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals also upheld Behenna's 15-year sentence, which the Edmond native is serving at a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Behenna, who was seeking a new trial, is planning to appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, his mother said Wednesday. A military justice expert said the court does not have to accept the case and that, if it doesn't, Behenna will have no more legal avenues to pursue his appeals.

Behenna's arguments to the Army appeals court focused on whether prosecutors improperly withheld evidence favorable to him and whether the judge correctly instructed the court-martial panel — the jury — on how to weigh Behenna's claim of self-defense.

The appeals court rejected all of the arguments, ruling that no evidence was deliberately withheld and that, had it been given, “it would not have changed the outcome of the trial beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The court said the judge properly told jury members that Behenna had no right to claim self-defense if they found beyond a reasonable doubt that he had assaulted the Iraqi without provocation or legal justification.

Behenna originally was sentenced to 25 years, though a judge reduced that to 20 years. He also received a five-year sentence reduction from a military clemency board in early 2010; the board declined to make another reduction in December.

Vicki Behenna said her son was disappointed in the decision, but already is looking to the next appeal.

“He is like Bozo the clown,” she said. “He keeps getting punched in the nose, and he keeps coming back.”

Right to self-defense

Michael Behenna was a platoon leader in Iraq when he killed Ali Mansur in 2008. Behenna suspected Mansur had been involved in an attack that killed two of his platoon members and wounded two others. He and members of his platoon took Mansur to a remote area, where Behenna cut off his clothes, had him sit on a rock and threatened him with a pistol.

At trial, Behenna conceded that he didn't have the legal authority to question Mansur, but said he shot him in self-defense after Mansur jumped up and reached for his gun.

Two eyewitnesses testified for the government that Mansur had been sitting when Behenna shot him, while two forensic experts testifying for the defense said Mansur had likely been standing.

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