EDITOR’S NOTE: On July 31, 2008, Army Ranger 1st Lt. Michael Behenna was charged with the premeditated murder of Ali Mansur, a known Al-Qaeda agent operating near Albu Toma, an area north of Baghdad. Seven months later, the leader of the 18-member Delta Company, 5th platoon of the Army 101st Airborne Infantry Division was convicted of unpremeditated murder and sentenced to 25 years confinement at Fort Leavenworth. Below is the seventh installment of a multi-part investigative series detailing the spurious case against Lieutenant Behenna, now 26, adapted from “The Michael Behenna Story (pdf)” (26 pgs., PDF) by new BMW contributor Carrie Fatigante. It picks up from “The Michael Behenna Story: Part Six.”
By Carrie Fatigante
What happened after 1st Lt. Michael Behenna shot terrorist Ali Mansur in a roadside culvert north of Baghdad is hard to determine based on conflicting court statements.
One matter of dispute has to do with what happened to Mansur’s clothes—both those cut off of Mansur and his street clothes that were in Michael’s pocket.
SSgt. Hal Warner alleged that Michael ordered him to get rid of the clothes, but Harry charged that it was Sergeant Warner who told Michael, “Just give [them] to me and I will take care of it.” Harry also said Michael did not speak when walking through the culverts back to the platoon.
After the shooting, other members of Delta Company 5th platoon reported that they asked Michael if he killed Mansur and that Michael answered yes. They also testified along with Sergeant Warner and Harry that Michael never asked them to lie about what had happened.
The prosecution claimed Michael executed Mansur as he was seated, asserting that Michael’s weapon was aimed down toward his head. They argued to the jury that Michael’s first shot hit Mansur in the head and the subsequent shot hit under his arm. However, physical traces show that the opposite is true.
When Michael fired his gun, evidence confirms the first shot entered Mansur under his right arm, near his armpit, and the second one entered his right temple as he fell from the first shot.
Mansur’s left arm was crossed over his body as if he was reaching to the area of the first wound, and when he landed his arm lay in this position. The bullet trajectory was horizontal, confirmed by the bullets recovered at the scene.
Defense experts testified that this horizontal trajectory proves Mansur could not have been seated when he was shot as the prosecution claimed, because the trajectory would have been downward. Also, unless Mansur had his arm outstretched as Michael said, the bullet could not have entered under his arm, and instead would have hit his upper arm or his chest. The prosecution presented no direct or rebuttal witnesses to dispute these claims, for reasons revealed after Michael’s conviction.
Vicki Behenna said her son Michael’s phone calls after the April 21, 2008, IED attack by Ali Mansur became increasingly disturbing, and all he kept saying to her was, “I want to come home.”
Michael knew he was scheduled for leave soon and was desperate to be with his family. Two days after the incident in the culvert, Michael left for Oklahoma.
Vicki describes his behavior during this leave as troubling.
“He was so rattled by what had happened, and haunted by the cries of the victims, that he couldn’t function. Michael NEVER cries, yet we went shopping at a mall and he suddenly broke down so badly that we had to leave. He seemed to be suffering some sort of shock.”
Michael did not tell the family about Mansur’s shooting while he was home, but they would soon find out.
While Michael was in Oklahoma, and only after Mansur’s body was discovered, Sergeant Warner suddenly developed a conscious and reported the shooting to commanding officers. This was when he made the first of at least two conflicting statements about his own culpability in the matter. By the time Michael returned from leave in early June, both the sergeant and Michael were under internal investigation.
Michael was charged with the premeditated murder of Ali Mansur on July 31, 2008. The charges received much press, which painted both Michael and Sergeant Warner as just two more deviant soldiers in a long line of scandals from Abu Ghraib to the Pendleton 8. Michael’s conviction also received heavy coverage in the mainstream media, but the subsequent discovery of hidden exculpatory evidence did not.
When jury selection began in February 2009, Vicki was immediately alarmed. Military jury pools are preselected by an Army general. The general selects ten members, and then the attorneys voir dire down to a final panel of seven.
Michael’s attorney, Jack Zimmerman, specifically requested that some of the selected members have direct combat experience in order to allow Michael a true jury of his peers. Only one of the original ten members selected would match this request, and he was not selected for the final jury.
When asked if she felt relatable combat officers were purposely kept off the jury, Vicki reluctantly replied, “The 101st is an infantry division. I’m just saying they’d have to work really hard to find that many officers in the 101st who HADN’T had direct combat experience.”
The court-martial commenced Feb. 23.
Vicki says the disconnect between the experiences of the jury members and Michael was evident throughout the proceedings. One example stands out for Michael’s father, Scott.
When Michael testified that his decision to question Mansur stemmed from his belief that Mansur’s activities were a threat to his men, one jury member asked him why he couldn’t have just “done some surveillance.” Scott said the look on Michael’s face was incredulous.
“They didn’t understand that you don’t just park a van and have a stakeout with coffee and donuts over there. It doesn’t work that way.”
Stay tuned for “The Michael Behenna Story: Part Eight.”
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To read other BMW posts about Lieutenant Behenna’s case, click here.
To learn more about the case and the legal defense fund set up to help defray costs associated with Lt. Behenna’s defense, visit DefendMichael.wordpress.com.