The Premeditated Murder Trial of 1LT Michael Behenna

1LT Michael Behenna is scheduled to go to trial for premeditated murder on 23 February 2009.  This trial will take place at Fort Campbell and Judge Theodore E. Dickson will preside. A panel (or jury) of officers will consider the evidence presented by the Government. The first day of the trial will probably consist of panel selection and possibly opening Arguments.  There are good lawyers on both sides of the fence in this case.  Mr. Jack Zimmeran, a civilian defense counse out of Texas, is an extremely competent and experienced attorney, who is  representing 1LT Behenna.  He is being assisted by two appointed Trial Defense Attorneys from Iraq and his civilian co-counsel. On the other side, the Government has a capable team of prosecutors consisting of CPT Megan Poirier, CPT Erwin Roberts and CPT Elbert.  CPT Poirier has lead the charge on this case since the facts began to develop in Iraq in June and July of last year.

1LT Behenna is being tried for the premeditated murder of Ali Mansur.  Ali Mansur was a detainee that was scheduled to be released by 1LT Behenna’s platoon on 16 May 2009.  Subsequently, Ali Mansur’s burnt naked body was found in the desert. 

The trial should take about a week.  Evidence presented will consist of Iraqi witnesses brought from Iraq to testify.  Members of the platoon who were there the night the events took place.  Expert witnesses to testify to the validity and interpetation of the scientific evidence.

The 101st has had several of these kinds of cases over the last few years.  Notable, 2nd Brigade of the 101st had a series of detainee death cases several years ago, but these cases were different in that facts did not immediately come to light and at least one of the soldiers involved had ended his term of service prior to be charged with the offenses.

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.

Miranda in Iraq

Right after Bush announced “Mission Accomplished,” in 2003, I was serving with the 101st as a JAG in Iraq.  After securing Baghdad, Gen. Petraeus convoyed the division North to Mosul.  By July, I was heading up what we had facetiously dubbed the Mosul Office of Judicial Operations (the MOJO). Our mission was to reestablish a judiciary in Northern Iraq.  www.jamesphillipslaw.com

My day to day operation consisted of going down to the Mosul courthouse to supervise the Iraqi judges (all BAATHISTs).  Funny enough, the statutory codes that the Iraqis had on the books were quite democratic.  They were based on the British System.  But, although the system looked good on paper, the actual workings of the judicial system was corrupt and about what a person would expect of Saddam’s regime.  Generally, a detainee or criminal would never get to the courthouse.  Once detained, the police would sweat the family for money by holding the prisoner at the local police station.  If the family couldn’t pay, eventually, he would make it to the courthouse.  There he would have an opportunity to tell his story to the judge or a panel of judges.

My job was to jump start the system and end decades of corruption.  Obviously this Quixotic quest was fraught with both peril and a cerain sense of futility.

The head judge was a big bellied arrogant man who had been a powerful member of the local Baath party.  Our presence scared him, but he didn’t want to lose his esteemed position so he did what we told him. 

In the late summer of 2003, after a lot of dangerous and hard work, my MOJO team had gotten the police to stop holding the prisoners in the jails and actually start sending the prisoners to the courthouse.  Of course, this created several logistical problems, too many prisoners at the court house, but we felt good at helping to move the wheels of justice forward.

Then, we got a message from the State Department and the Department of Justice back home.  In their infinite wisdom, they had determined that it was time to give the Iraqis several Americanized rights.  One of those rights was the right to remain silent.  The other right was the right to a lawyer.  Now, these lawyers from the State Department and the DOJ, weren’t in Iraq, and hadn’t a clue as to the effects this would produce.  They also probably didn’t realize that under the Saddam Regime, the Iraqis had a their own British System of justice.  A system of justice that does not rely on Miranda, the watershed case granting Americans the right to remain silent and the right to a lawyer.

The day after we were given the order to institute the new changes to the Iraqi law, in the form of a Coalition Order, we went down to the Mosul Courthouse and explained the need for Miranda to the Head Judge.  He seemed perplexed but called all the lawyers together, about fifty of them in Ninevah province and explained what we would be doing.   They did not agree with the changes, nor understand the need for them.

What happened next was mind boggling.  Within days, the entire judicial system in Northern Iraq shut down.  The Courthouse became an engine of inefficiency.  Criminals were angry.  Lawyers were frustrated.  Average citizens were confused.

The criminals hated the idea of remaining silent.  They wanted to tell their side of the story.  There is a tradition in Iraq that you get to lie about the crime you committed.  Criminals in Iraq believe they have the right to tell the judge how they have been wrongfully detained and that weren’t at the scene.  They have thousands of stories ready for the judge and happily change each and every version as they go along.  The idea that they would not be able to lie to the judge was repulsive to them.

Second, waiting for the appointment of a lawyer, was not a satisfactory answer.  The criminals hated lawyers, even defense lawyers.  They didn’t trust the lawyers and felt as though this was a way to railroad them into prison. 

Essentially, Miranda had taken away their right to defend themselves.

Also, since there wasn’t enough lawyers because there had never been a right to a lawyer before and the DOJ and State Department had not funded court-appointed lawyers.  No one had the money or inclination to hire a lawyer.  The Courts didn’t have the money to pay for the lawyers.  So, without a mandated lawyer, the system shut down.

The ideals were good, but it was a fiasco in practice.  The Iraqis were not appreciative nor ready for the American ideals.  Sadly, they are probably still not ready for those same ideals.