Reflecting on five years of legal battles that took them all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the mother of convicted Army Ranger Michael Behenna reveled in the news that her son will be released on parole from his sentence for killing an al-Qaida terrorist in Iraq.
In an interview Friday with talk-radio host Michael Savage, Vicki Behenna said the U.S. government’s prosecution of her son, whose claim of self-defense is backed by forensic evidence that was withheld at the trial, is “inconceivable to me.”
She said people often asked her why she and her husband kept fighting.
“There’s an injustice here, and it’s not just an injustice because it happened to my son,” she explained to Savage. “But, how in the world do we expect to send soldiers and combat Marines into combat zones and not support them?”
Vicki Behenna, a federal prosecutor who worked on the Oklahoma City bombing case, argued soldiers in combat “are going to make decisions that the general public is not going to like, but you don’t incarcerate them for the decisions that they make.”
Michael’s father, Scott Behenna, is an FBI intelligence analyst and retired Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation special agent.
The parents announced their son, 30, will be released March 14 from Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas after serving five years of a 15-year sentence for the death of al-Qaida operative Ali Mansur in Iraq in 2008.
The family asked for Michael Behenna’s release at a parole board hearing in January, arguing he is no threat to society.
Savage and his listeners have been major contributors to a defense fund the family has established that receives online donations through the “Defend Michael” website.
‘I want to fight terrorists’
Haunted by the images of people leaping from the World Trade Center on 9/11, Michael Behenna told his parents he wanted to enlist in the Army and “fight terrorists.” He ended up enrolling in the ROTC program at the University of Central Oklahoma and graduated in 2006.
After Officer Candidate School and Infantry Officer Training, he was selected to attend the U.S. Army’s Ranger School. Behenna was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division as a platoon leader and deployed to Iraq in 2007.
Behenna and his platoon conducted counter-insurgency operations in the Salahuddin province.
Behenna, who learned Arabic in his spare time, was known for his efforts to engage Iraqi civilians, and he encouraged his soldiers to learn about their culture and eat their food.
“He was the type of guy that liked Iraqis,” Spc. Cody Atkinson told the Los Angeles Times. “That was the only annoying thing about him. He was always about saving the country.”
The platoon suspected the al-Qaida operative, Mansur, of being involved in an attack that killed two of their colleagues. But after holding him for nearly two weeks, military intelligence was unable to find sufficient evidence and Mansur was ordered released.
An intelligence report, however, had identified Mansur as an explosives transporter for the local al-Qaida cell, and a local sheik identified him as a terrorist.
Behenna’s platoon was ordered to return Mansur to his town as soon as possible. The prosecution alleged Behenna, while conducting an unauthorized interrogation, shot Mansur in cold blood. Behenna claimed he fired in self-defense because Mansur was trying to attack him.
A government witness presented exculpatory evidence to prosecutors, but he was not allowed to testify, and the evidence was provided to the defense only after the verdict was delivered.
Bush ‘did nothing’
Behenna was charged in 2008, under the George W. Bush administration and went to trial in February 2009, just after Obama came to office.
Savage helped lead a campaign urging Bush to intervene.
“He did nothing,” Savage said.
“Nothing,” Vicki Behenna affirmed.
Vicki Behenna said she would have understood the administration’s unwillingness to intervene if it were a case like the U.S. solider in Afghanistan, Sgt. Robert Bales, who killed 16 civilians inside their homes.
“The Army knows that the man that Michael shot was a member of al-Qaida, and the man was coming toward Michael to take his weapon from him to use it against him,” she said.
“How in the world you can charge a solider for a shooting incident and convicted him of murder is just beyond me,” she added. “I don’t understand.”
On their Defend Michael website, the Behennas announced that with “tears of joy in our eyes we are happy to tell all of you that Michael is coming home!”
“Life is often not fair, and as we have seen, justice is sometimes hard to come by,” the Behennas said. “For the innocent man who is sent to prison, life can seem especially cruel. To survive that requires strength that comes from deep inside. It also requires the love and support from family and close friends. Michael always knew he could count on his family and friends to be there for him. What has rocked his world is how thousands of people he has never met could will him through his struggle.”
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin issued a statement after hearing news of Behenna’s parole.
“I am glad this long ordeal has finally come to an end for Michael Behenna and his family,” she said. “Michael went to Iraq to serve his nation and to defend liberty both here and abroad. Instead, he found himself mourning the loss of his friends from the inside of a cell.
“I believe the Army acted appropriately and compassionately in offering him parole.”