The Lesser Rights of Heroes

I have two other posts in the works – one is my continuation of my series on the lessons of Nazism, the other is a review of a new movie starring Sigourney Weaver – but tonight I wanted to bring to light the situation of a US Army Ranger who is about to spend another Christmas away from his family for no reason other than defending himself from a known terrorist.

Lt. Michael Behenna joined the US Army in 2006 after graduating college; he joined the Rangers and deployed to Iraq in 2007. On April 21, 2008, his convoy was hit by an IED and two of his men were killed. The incident weighed heavily on the young officer, yet he continued to lead his men as only a soldier can. On May 5, Army intelligence reported that they had identified the insurgent leader responsible for the IED that killed his men: Ali Mansour. Lt. Behenna’s platoon was sent to arrest Mansour at his home; they found more than they might have expected. He had an RPK machine gun (similar to the AK-47; larger and with a little more oomph), a large stash of ammunition, RPG’s, material to make IED’s and multiple illegal passports – including one from Iran.

Two weeks later, Army intelligence inexplicably decided they didn’t have enough evidence to keep Mansour and ordered Behenna’s unit to return the terrorist to his home. En route to Mansour’s residence, Behenna ordered the convoy to stop; he took Mansour out of the vehicle, away from the convoy, and over to a culvert and bridge where he threatened to kill Mansour if he didn’t confess to planning the IED that had killed his men. The interpreter, known as Harry, later testified that he didn’t believe Behenna would actually kill Mansour. At some point during the questioning, Behenna turned briefly to Harry and Mansour attacked. Behenna was forced to fire a controlled pair of shots in self-defense and Mansour was killed. Behenna’s NCO, Staff Sgt. Warner, decided to hide the evidence; he placed an incendiary grenade under Mansour’s head, pulled the pin, and walked away. Behenna panicked and failed to properly report the incident. That is the worst that can be said of his actions on May 16, 2008.

Three days later, Army intelligence issued a “kill or capture” order for Mansour. They didn’t know he was already dead. His naked and burned body was discovered still in the culvert and an investigation was launched, at which point Behenna told the truth about what had happened. In November he was shipped back to Fort Campbell for desk duty to await prosecution.

SSG Warner was offered a plea deal (although what kind of deal I haven’t been able to find) to testify against Lt. Behenna. Harry, the interpreter, also testified – he claimed that Lt. Behenna stripped Mansour naked, sat him down on a rock and executed him. The forensic evidence, however, proved he was lying. Both Iraqi and American forensic experts – including the prosecution’s own expert, Dr. Herbert MacDonnell – agreed that when Mansour was shot, he was standing, with his arms raised. He was shot while in an attack position.

What will blow you away is what happened next. Army prosecutors sent Dr. MacDonnell home without having him testify. Dr. MacDonnell told Lt. Behenna’s lawyers as he was leaving that he knew Lt. Behenna was innocent, but that because of his contract he couldn’t say why; they needed to ask the prosecutors. Before the case went to the panel (jury) for deliberation, defense attorneys specifically asked prosecutors if there was any exculpatory evidence that they needed to enter into the record.

Prosecutors at that point said NO. Then, after the verdict was reached, upon Dr. MacDonnell’s insistence, prosecutors finally turned the evidence over. This incident turned up a very damning piece of information: Army prosecutors had deliberately withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. When Dr. MacDonnell told them that Lt. Behenna was telling the truth and that all of the forensic evidence pointed to that fact, prosecutors sent him home and refused to pass his findings on to defense attorneys. Such actions are a blatant violation of the rules of the court and have led to immediate nullification of several major convictions over the years. Lawyers have been suspended, even disbarred for this kind of infraction. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys are required by the Supreme Court verdict in Brady v. Maryland to hand over any evidence that is considered important to the guilt or innocence of the accused; such evidence is called exculpatory, or is known as “Brady material”.

In this case, a further horror was laid on Lt. Behenna and his family when the judge refused to grant a mistrial and order a new trial. Despite the open and willful flaunting of criminal law by prosecutors, the judge let the verdict stand and sentenced Lt. Behenna to 25 years at Fort Leavenworth Prison. Two different panels have since taken time off of his sentence, reducing it to 15 years.

Regardless of the reduction, the entire episode is an unspeakable injustice against an American hero who did nothing more than defend himself against a known terrorist who tried to attack him. Since the death of Ali Mansour, not one single justice has been afforded the Behenna family; not one person in the government has stopped to acknowledge the cruelty of the situation. Untold numbers of Americans, including elected Congressmen, have insisted that the original verdict be overturned and a new trial ordered. Despite everything that has happened, despite the evidence, despite the expert testimony and despite the outrage that Army prosecutors committed in the courtroom, yesterday the Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, denied Lt. Behenna’s request for clemency. He refused to give this hero a single day of clemency.

Even worse, when the appeal hearing was held just a couple of weeks ago, Army prosecutors backed away from their original narrative – that Lt. Behenna had executed Mansour as he sat naked on a rock. Now they’re claiming that the instant Lt. Behenna pointed a loaded gun at Mansour, regardless of the reason, he forfeited his right to self-defense.

That is the most incredibly ludicrous argument against self-defense that I have ever heard in my life. It’s being made by the Army against an exemplary soldier. There can be no forgiveness for such deliberate injustices.

This Saturday, Lt. Behenna’s parents, brothers and girlfriend will visit him for Christmas. They and their supporters are doing all they can to help lift his spirits. Three different Oklahoma agencies have promised him a job when he is released and members of the Oklahoma government, all the way to the governor, have written letters to plead his case. It may be 15 months before a decision is made on the appeal. By that time, Lt. Michael Behenna will have spent his third Christmas in prison, wishing to be free, to hold his girlfriend, hug his mother, and celebrate with those he loves.

Visit to find out how to help the Behenna family, write to Lt. Behenna, and see further news on the case. Write to your Representatives and Senators to plead for intervention and stop the injustice being repeatedly visited upon this family of civil servants.

(Keep your eyes peeled for that movie review…we’ll have a contest to give away a free copy!)