I (www.jamesphillipslaw.com) was not able to be at Fort Campbell to hear the members read the verdict in US v. Behenna. My co-counsel in US v. Warner and I had made a few predictions about what we thought the verdict might be. We both thought since the verdict of guilt had been a compromised verdict and the panel had not convicted LT Behenna of premeditated murder that the panel was looking for a way out of having to sentence LT Behenna to a lot of jail time. My co-counsel thought the panel would give LT Behenna seven years of confinement. I thought they would give him twelve years. We were both wrong. The military panel sentenced LT Behenna to twenty five years of confinement.
I tend to have faith in juries and military panels to make right decisions. I was surprised that the sentence was so high. Despite the evidence that Ali Mansur was possibly a member of Al Queada and had involvement in the death of several of LT Behenna’s men, the panel made up of relatively younger officers decided to sentence LT Behenna to a sentence that was appropriate for murder. They did not back away from the nuances of the case, but instead voted for what they saw. This sentence shows that they considered the death of Ali Mansur to be a major crime.
In representing SSG Warner, we had considered taking our case to trial. Since our client was not guilty of premeditated murder or accessory after the fact, this very well could have happened we not be able to come to an agreement with the Government. But, in going to trial, one of our concerns in representing SSG Warner was that the panel may look at the pictures of Ali Mansur’s dead burnt body and not be able to excuse the actions of our client. We were concerned that looking at the horror of a killing the panel would want to assign blame and we did not want them to mistakenly assign it to our client. We also didn’t want the panel to sentence our client because they may assign too much culpability.
Jack Zimmerman, Behenna’s lead counsel, was probably concerned about many of the same issues. In his case, that appears to be what has taken place. The military panel did not buy the repeated references to Ali Mansur being a “terrorist” and a “bad” man. There was certainly evidence that this is exactly what he was, but there was also evidence that at the time he was shot, he was naked, in the control of LT Behenna and pleading for his life.
In the end, the panel had to decide whether or not LT Behenna had shot a human being point blank in the forehead or whether or not this was “just an Iraqi.” The tempation for the defense is to say that this is just an Iraqi. Who cares? How many times has an Iraqi been killed in one combat operation or another?
In this case, the Iraqi was under the care and control of the US forces. As CPT Poirier, the lead prosecutor in our case, said in her closing argument in US v. Warner, this is the type of crime that requires that “we” send a message to soldiers not to commit these types of battlefield attorcities. Now, in our case, I believed that she was wrongfully characterizing our client’s conduct, but the point was made nonetheless. Soldiers must follow the rules regardless of their personal vendettas.
In LT Behenna’s case, the panel seemed to send a message that officers cannot decide for themselves how they are going to distribute justice. If we as a nation are going to occupy and administer justice in Iraq, then we will require our officers to follow the law. No matter whether you agree with the panel’s decision to heavily sentence LT Behenna or not, there is certainly a requirement that we not lead Iraqi citizens into the desert, strip them naked and then shoot them point blank in the forehead. The panel has sent that message loud and clear with a twenty five year sentence.
Of course, both US v. Warner and US v. Behenna will continue to play out through the appeal process and to some lesser extent in the media. Jack Zimmerman and the defense in US v. Behenna have filed a motion for a mistrial, but based on this verdict from this panel, they may want to watch out what they ask for. This panel looked like the best bet for a jury nullification. Young officers, with relatively junior rank for a military panel, who were probably fairly independent, and yet in the end, they sentenced Behenna to 25 years. A more senior officer panel may have given him more time.