Day Three LT Behenna Trial

I (www.jamesphillipslaw.com) had another opportunity to go out to watch today’s trial at Fort Campbell in US v. LT Behenna.  Today was in some ways a clear turning point for both the government case and for the defense. 

The government case concluded today with three very strong witnesses.  “Harry” the interpreter testified this morning and through his own interpreter came across as a fairly strong witness.  “Harry” went through the events which took place on 16 May 2009, describing the how 1LT Behenna shot and killed Ali Mansur in the desert outside of FOB Summerall.

Lead defense counsel Jack Zimmerman had a very good methodical cross on “Harry.”  He got Harry to say that Ali Mansur was a “Bad Man” or a “terrorist” numerous times.  He also was able to create a defense opening in the fact that Harry did not see several critical moments during the shooting.

Next, the Government called SSG Seate.  His testimony established that LT Behenna had spoken about the killing in the DFAC sometime later.  The conversation seemed to acknowledge the illegality of the act.  Zimmerman was able to get SSG Seate to say that LT Behenna was changed after the death of his men in April 09. This will later help establish that LT Behenna was very emotionally effected by the loss of his men in the April IED attack.

Finally, the government closed with SSG Warner.  I don’t want to comment too much on my client and his testimony other than to say that he was problematic for both the government and the defense.  Based on the questions that were asked by the panel of SSG Warner, they definitely considered much of what he said as substantive, despite Jack Zimmerman’s excellent cross, establishing SSG Warner’s potential biases.  Also, Jack Zimmerman cleverly was able to get SSG Warner to talk about the mandatory minimum of Life Imprisonment without parole for the offense of premeditated murder.  For the defense, this was an opportunity to remind the panel of their heavy burden in this case and to remind them that if they convict LT Behenna he will face the same mandatory minimums.

After SSG Warner’s testimony, the government closed.  They have presented a strong case, but left several doors open for the defense.  One of them being that Ali Mansur’s actions at the time of the shots being fired have not clearly been defined.

The defense presented two expert witnesses today.  The first expert witness was a pathologist out of Texas.  Essentially, he tried to establish that Ali Mansur was standing at the time he was hit with the first shot. The second expert witness was a crime scene re-constructionist.  He also attempted to establish that Ali Mansur was standing at the time he was hit with the first shot.  This was important because it would show that the physical evidence contradicts the testimony of  SSG Warner and Harry.

CPT Erwin Roberts crossed examined both expert witnesses effectively.  He was able to call into question their expert opinions by demonstrating that they may not have had enough crime scene date to make a correct opinion that was in direct contravention to the witnesses that testified. 

The panel seemed to pick up on CPT Robert’s cross, because their written questions to the expert witnesses were very much concerned which crime scene data was used for the expert opinions.

Update on LT Behenna Trial

I (www.jamesphillipslaw.com) was at Fort Campbell today and watched a portion of US v. Behenna.  The prosecution is three quarters of the way through their case.  The case so far has consisted of laying the foundations for proving the murder. The case seems strong, but the defense has yet to present their evidence and that will probably not begin until early Thursday morning. 

The panel members (or the civilian equivalent to a military jury) were fully engaged and very attentive today.   1LT Behenna’s panel consists of seven officers on the panel.  One woman and six  men have been selected for Behenna’s panel.  Four members of the panel are captains.  The other three are field grade officers.  A majority of the panel appears to have combat experience.

The prosecution will present the meat of their case tomorrow.  “Harry” the interpretor, who was with 1LT Behenna at the time of Ali Mansur’s death, is expected to testify.  He is expected to testify to witnessing Ali Mansur getting shot.  Strange as it may seem, if “Harry” follows his pattern from the Article 32 hearing, he will testify as the interpretor through an interpretor.  After “Harry” is done testifying, SSG Mitch Warner is expected to be the final witness in the prosecutions case.  He will also testify as an eye witness to the events that took place in the desert.

Jack Zimmerman, the civilian defense counsel for 1LT Behenna, vigorously fought any characterization of Ali Mansur’s death with the words “homicide” and “crime” today.  His defense team lodged several objections to the prosecutions characterizations of the death with any words that resembled a crime.  The argument may have seemed to be one of semantics to the panel, but the defense clearly was sending a message with the objections that they were objecting to the prosecutions entire case.  They are trying to focus the panel on the idea that this may have been a lawful killing.  They also do not want to have the panel  prejudge Behenna prior to them being able to put on their defense.

The defense will begin presenting evidence probably this Thursday.  They will probably follow up with their promises made during opening arguments, which will mean that they will put evidence on that will demonstrate that 1LT Behenna was not thinking clearly at the time of the killing.  They will also probably put on evidence showing that Ali Mansur may have been a suspected terrorist.

CPT Johnston, 1LT Behenna’s acting commander during the investigation, testified today regarding his preliminary investigation into the death of Ali Mansur. After his testimony, the panel presented the military judge with several written questions.  The questions presented by the panel were very thoughtful and seemed defense oriented.

The prosecution brought several witnesses to testify from Iraq.  The Iraqis testified through an interpretor. 

There were several journalists in the audience, but overall, the case has not drawn the media attention it probably deserves.

Summary Court Martial- A Fair Process? Or Foregone Conclusion?

Yesterday, I represented a soldier in a Summary Court Martial at Fort Campbell.  www.jamesphillipslaw.com or www.ucmjlawyer.com. Or, self help legal (invisiblelawyer.com).

His parents had hired me to represent him in the Summary Court Martial because they were concerned that he might be railroaded by his Chain of Command. His parents had good reason to worry.  Summary Court Martial (SCM) are dangerous business for the soldier.

An SCM begins when charges are preferred against a soldier.  What this means is that the soldier is dragged into the Commander’s office, read the charges, and told he will have 72 hours to get ready.  At the preferral, the soldier may be able to look at the packet of information, the allied papers, which will be considered as evidence against him. At some point within the next day or so, the soldier will be hustled over to the Trial Defense Service (TDS) to go over the SCM rights.  At his appointment with either a TDS attorney or paralegal, the soldier will be given a TDS information packet that will describe the basic rights he has at the SCM.  The TDS attorney will spend a few minutes talking to the attorneysoldier, answering a few basic questions and then he will be sent on his way and back to the command.  Since TDS is normally too busy to represent soldiers at SCMs, the soldier will have to go it alone.  The soldier does have the right to hire civilian defense counsel at his or her own expense.  Normally, this doesn’t happen, so the soldier, who has neither the rank nor authority, will be expected to stand up and defend themselves, without counsel, in front of a SCM Officer at what will essentially be a closed door and hidden proceeding. The SCM Officer, usually a captain, will have little to no legal training and will see this as a glorified Article 15, where the real issue is not guilt or innocence, (the soldier is guilty because he is at a SCM) but how much punishment needs to be inflicted on the soldier.

If the soldier does not hire a civillian defense counsel, at trial, the SCM Officer will read from a script.  They will review a packet of information (the allied papers) given to them by the brigade legal and after quickly running through a script with the accused soldier the SCM Officer will convict the solider and max him out according to whatever is the desire of the command.  Most of the evidence that will have been considered will be hearsay, or inadmissible and not competent for Trial.  The soldier will have been intimidated by the Summary Court Officer, convicted on incompetent evidence and have an overall feeling that the entire process is utterly and completely unfair.  The soldier will be right.

The problem is that this is not what the Army intended an SCM to be.  The SCM was created to take pressure off of the military judges and the military courts by allowing a lower level proceeding, that would still afford the soldier all of his basic rights.  At an SCM, the same rules apply as at a Special Court Martial or a General Court Martial.  The rules of evidence apply.  The ability to call witnesses at the trial on the merits and on sentencing both apply.  The ability to introduce evidence in defense and mitigation apply.  In the face of this evidence, the SCM Officer has e a duty to act neutrally and only weigh competent  and relevant evidence.  Because all of these legal rights apply, this is one reason that hiring a qualified civilian military defense attorney may be the most crucial decision when deciding whether to object to or consent to a Summary Court Martial.

More than any other military proceeding the civilian defense counsel has the biggest overall effect on a Summary Court Martial.  This is because at a Summary Court Martial the person that is most confused and feeling like a fish out of water is the SCM Officer. As military officers, they have probably never been around a trial or administrative hearing. They do not understand the law.  They do not understand the introduction of evidence and they do not understand the proper way to question a witness on the stand.  All of these things lead allow the civilian defense counsel to help guide both the SCM Officer and the outcome.  The civilian defense counsel in subtle ways can both befriend and harrass the SCM Officer into making a favorable decision for the accused soldier.

If the civilian defense attorney acts appropriately, he will quickly guide the presentation of evidence at Trial.  This is a huge advantage.  This will also give the civilian defense attorney credibility with the SCM Officer.

As an example of this, I had a case where my client had originally been accused of Rape.  He was a Sergeant First Class (E-7) and was accused of sexually assaulting on of his soldier.  I was originally hired to represent him at a General Court Martial. After the Article 32 hearing, the Article 32 officer recommended a lesser charge than Rape and that the referral be at the SCM level.

At the SCM, the proceeding was held in a tiny office.  The SCM officer and I were just a few feet from each other and the atmosphere was very relaxed.  I had been in the Army for 10 years, both enlisted and commissioned time, and have been deployed to Iraq twice.  The SCM officer was an infantry officer and so I began to chat with him until we were able to start swapping stories.  I relaxed him by assuring him that I wasn’t there to cause trouble and I would help him through the entire proceeding.  I also told him before we even began that the Government had done him no favors because all of the evidence in his allied papers would not be allowed into evidence.  I assured him that I wouldn’t make it hard, just would explain the problems as we got to them.

After we opened the trial, the SCM tried to introduce several sworn statements of witnesses.  The witnesses were not called, but were actually deployed at the time, so I explained this was hearsay and couldn’t be considered.  We did this with the DNA report, the rape kit, all of the pertinent evidence.  All of it was excluded as hearsay.  Then when the main accuser was called to testify I asked the SCM Officer if I could do the direct to make it go easier.  He agreed.  I then lead the accuser through direct, but did it from the defense prospective and not from a prosecutorial prospective.  Before closing arguments, I engaged the SCM Officer in a long conversation on what were the problems with the case.  At that point, the SCM threw out the script and decided that my client was not guilty.

The problem is that if my client went in alone he would now be an E-6 and would have lost huge amounts of retirement.  The SCM Officer would have looked at the packet given to him by the Government, and without cross examination or analysis would have just figured that my client was guilty.

For these reasons, any soldier that is considering going to a SCM should also consider consulting and/or hiring a qualified military civilian defense counsel.  Now here is the problem, there are very few attorneys that are qualified to represent soldiers at SCMs.  Make sure that the civilian attorney you consult with knows what he is doing and that he has lots of experience with Court Martials.  Most attorneys will be happy to take your money to represent you, but many don’t have a clue how a military proceeding works.  Civilian state court trial time does not translate well to the military.

These are the things you should find out about the civilian attorney: (1) how many SCMs has he done, (2) can he explain how an SCM works (both perils and positives), (3) can he explain why you should or should not object to trial by SCM, (4) how well does he know military law, and (5) finally, does he seem like someone you will trust and like.  If he meets these qualifications and you think he can help you, you should really consider hiring him before you go it alone at an SCM.

More on SSG Mitch Warner and his appeal process

I am the lead counsel in US v. Warner. I am a military lawyer and nothing in this blog is meant to be construed as developing an attorney-client relationship between me and you.  If you want me to be your lawyer, contact either –www.jamesphillipslaw.com and www.ucmjlawyer.com.  Also, this update is written with the permission of my client SSG Mitch Warner.  He has consented to waive any attorney-client privilege to help clear his name.

For anyone who has read my blog on SSG Warner, you will know that I believe in SSG Warner as both a soldier and a citizen.  Over the time I have defended him in this Court-Martial, I have come to respect him as a person and as a combat veteran.  He deserves better than he is getting from the US Army.

Mitch Warner was convicted of several offenses and is currently beginning to serve his 17 month sentence.  He was convicted of the maltreatment of a suspected Al Queada member who may have been linked to the death of several members of SSG Warner’s platoon.  At trial, Ali Mansur, the Iraqi detainee that was ultimately killed, was made out by the government to be a humble citizen of Iraq who was unfairly treated by our US Soldiers.  There is evidence that this is just not true.  One of the reasons that this entire tragic event took place, which resulted in the killing of Ali Mansur by 1LT Behenna, was that Ali Mansur was suspected in participating in the killing of American Soldiers near COB Speicher.  5th Platoon, the platoon the both 1LT Behenna and SSG Warner, were assigned to, took significant casualties just a few weeks prior to the May 16, 2008 death of Ali Mansur.  Mr. Mansur was picked up by 5th Platoon and was detaineed as part of the investigation of those deaths.  For a reason unknown to the defense team, Ali Mansur was order to be released from custody and was to be returned to his home by 5th Platoon.  Now, it doesn’t take a genius to know this was probably not a good decision on the part of the chain of command.

For SSG Warner, these facts do not change the outcome of his trial.  He now must begin to ask for both clemency and to appeal his sentence.  In the Army, the appeals process is two-fold, (1) the convicted Soldier may appeal to the convening authority, and (2) after that, they may appeal to a higher level court.

The first part of the process is termed as 1105 and 1106 matters.  Essentially, this will allow the defense team to submit additional matters in mitigation to the “convening authority.”  In the military, a military judge makes a determination as to the appropriate sentence in every judge alone case.  After the verdict is read, it still must be approved by the convening authority.  In this case, the Commander of the 101st Airborne Division (AASLT) may take action on the case and has the option of lowering the sentence.  It is his discretion based on matters submitted by the defense and a recommendation submitted by the Staff Judge Advocate of the Post. 

In Mitch Warner’s case, we will ask the convening authority to lower the sentence.  SSG Warner has distinguished himself as a soldier and in this case, based on the nature of the offenses, SSG Warner should not serve any additional time in confinement.  SSG Warner has an impeccable service record, to include Air Assault instructor, three tours in Iraq, numerous firefights and heroic actions in combat.  In addition, he has spent the past months defending himself against a charge of premeditated murder that he was not guilty of.

If the sentence, as approved by the convening authority, includes death, a bad-conduct discharge, a dishonorable discharge, dismissal of an officer, or significant confinement, the case is reviewed by the Army Court of Criminal Appeals.  In this case, both the type of discharge and the amount of confinement warrant an appeal.  Although SSG Warner would be afforded a military lawyer for his appellate defense, we would like for him to be represented by a team of civilian lawyers.  If you want to help with this endeavor and participate in the ongoing legal defense of SSG Warner, you may donate money to the Phillips Law, PLLC Trust Account.  Call our office at (931) 552-5679 for instructions on how to get involved in this case.  Get the word out to everyone you know.  This is a soldier that we should not forget and the more the better.

SSG Mitch Warner Update (Alleged Detainee Abuse)

I am the lead counsel in US v. Warner. I am a military lawyer and nothing in this blog is meant to be construed as developing an attorney-client relationship between me and you.  If you want me to be your lawyer, contact either –www.jamesphillipslaw.com and www.ucmjlawyer.com.  Also, this update is written with the permission of my client SSG Mitch Warner.  He has consented to waive any attorney-client privilege to help clear his name.

As a military defense counsel, any time you go to trial there is a wide array of emotions.  Today was one of those days.  SSG Mitch Warner was sentenced by Judge Theodore E. Dixon at Fort Campbell, Kentucky to 17 months of confinement, reduction to E-1, and a Bad Conduct Discharge.  He was found guilty, based on his own pleas to charges of Assault Consummated by Battery, False Official Statement and Maltreatment.  Three charges were dismissed by the Government prosecutors: premeditated murder, obstruction of justice, and accessory after-the-fact.

The charges that were dismissed were more significant than the charges that what SSG Warner plead guilty to.  The press has continually pointed their finger at SSG Warner as though he was a co-conspirator with 1LT Behenna in planning to kill the Iraqi detainee in this case.  There is nothing farther from the truth.  SSG Warner had no knowledge that the detainee Ali Mansur was going to be killed on 16 May 2009.  He had no intention of killing Ali Mansur.  He did not want Ali Mansur dead.

The sentencing case offered problems for both the defense and the prosecution of SSG Warner’s case. SSG Warner is a great soldier and an infantry Non-Commissioned Officer.  He served in Iraq multiple times.  At the sentencing hearing,  one of the Sergeants that served with him in Iraq described how he and SSG Warner had come under fire when an IED exploded on the vehicle that they were in.  SSG Warner and SSG Seal had to pull out one of the soldiers in the vehicle who had been mortally wounded by the IED.  In the process of pulling the soldier out of the vehicle, her arm fell off.  SSG Warner was able to set up a landing zone for the choppers to come in and medivac soldiers.  He was wounded in the incident and continued to help his wounded comrades.

1LT Michael Behenna will go on trial next week for the charged offense of premeditated murder.  He is represented by a very capable civilian attorney, Jack Zimmerman, out of Texas.  They will have to deal with many of the same issues the we had to deal with in US v. Warner.

Ali Mansur, the Iraqi that was maltreated near COB Speicher, was killed in Iraq last May.  Ali Mansur was allegedly murder by 1LT Behenna. He was a suspected member of Al Qeada.  The members of 5th platoon believed that Ali Mansur was the chief financier in the killing of several members of 5th platoon.  Members of the platoon, to include SSG Warner and 1LT Behenna captured Ali Mansur after an IED exploded that killed the members of 5th platoon. There was intelligence to indicate that Ali Mansur was involved in the killing and after he was detained by 5th platoon, he was processed into the detention facility.

Unfortunately, the Chain of Command in this case decided to release Ali Mansur and they had 5th platoon release him back into the civilian population.  Ali Mansur never made it back to the village.  He was stripped naked in the desert and shot.  The allegation against 1LT Behenna is that he shot Ali Mansur point blank.

SSG Warner was in the wrong place at the wrong time.   1LT Behenna is accused of leading Ali Mansur into the desert and shooting him point blank.  SSG Warner, unfortunately, believed that they would humiliate Ali Mansur and make him walk back to his home naked.  This is the offense maltreatment offense SSG Warner plead guilty.  SSG Warner did not have any knowledge that Ali Mansur would be shot and killed.

As an NCO, SSG Warner should probably have stopped his 1LT.  He had a duty to uphold the Army values and he has admitted that he didn’t do that.  For the defense and SSG Warner, it is a victory that the charges of premeditated murder, accessory after-the-fact and obstruction of justice were dismissed.  This properly reflects the fact that SSG Warner did not have any responsibility for the death of Ali Mansur.

Ultimately, this case highlights a disturbing issue.  With so many deployments, soldiers like SSG Warner can make mistakes in the combat zone.  It has become increasingly hard to distinguish enemy combatants from civilians.  Ali Mansur had a questionable status and was being investigated for possible involvement in killing US soldiers.  SSG Warner has served our country loyally and made a mistake.  Today, the Army lost a great combat soldier.