The Trials Of War

Written by Paul Fairchild in the May 2009 Issue

Edmond soldier 1st Lt. Michael Behenna faces the charge of premeditated murder of a suspected terrorist, Ali Monsour Mohammed, while interrogating him near Beiji, Iraq. Now the interpretation of that day – May 16, 2008 – rests in the hands of an Army general considering a clemency packet, as well as an Army Appellate Court.

Michael, a graduate of the University of Central Oklahoma, watched as his first court-martial ended ominously. The court convicted him of murder and handed down a sentence of 25 years in a military prison. Because the charge is murder, Behenna is entitled to an appeal, an opportunity he plans to pursue. If successful, he’ll win the right to a second trial. Until then, Michael sits in Leavenworth Federal Prison, waiting.

In the meantime, Scott and Vicki Behenna, Michael’s parents, have reached out to the Edmond community for support. And they’re overwhelmed with the response. The well wishes, Vicki says, do a lot to keep the family moving through a rough time.

“We’re doing OK,” says Vicki. “Each day we spend time answering e-mails and phone calls from people not just in Oklahoma, but around the nation, as well. We get a lot of support in cards from friends and family and the community. I think that altogether that helps us keep it together and moving forward.”

The Behennas are eager to keep the momentum high with Michael’s case because he stands a better-than-average chance of winning his appeal. Vicki and Scott are optimistic and expect it to result in a second trial. “We feel the chances on appeal are very good,” says Vicki. “You never want to be in that situation – where you have to go through an appeal – but we all feel that, given the current situation, it’s a good place to be.”

The success of the appeal will hinge on the testimony of a government forensics expert. During his first trial, Michael testified that he acted in self-defense – an explanation supported by the forensics expert. Government prosecutors, however, withheld the expert’s testimony and did not notify Michael’s attorney of the favorable nature of his opinion. The expert did not testify in the original trial, and his information was revealed after Michael was convicted.

The Behennas hope the support, both emotional and financial, continues through the appeal – and into a second trial.
Vicki and Scott are already collecting funds for the appeal and the second trial. But they are quick to point out that the emotional support is every bit as important as the financial.

“We talked to Michael last night on the phone and he says that he receives, on average, about five to 10 cards or letters every day,” says Vicki. “There are some from friends and family, of course, but many of them are from people he doesn’t know, and they come from all over the country. He’s feeling a lot of support, too. It really helps him.”
Defending oneself in a military trial, as it does in a civil trial, takes money. The Behennas retained counsel familiar with the intricacies of military trials. The costs, however, are enormous. The people of Edmond have been helpful in this arena, too.

“In November of last year on Veterans Day, some of our friends at Peace Lutheran Church organized a huge fundraiser for Michael. I think they raised $12,000 that evening. That support is absolutely wonderful,” says Vicki.
Says Pastor Neil White of Peace Lutheran: “This is something that really came from the congregation itself – all of this support for the Behennas. Many members have known them for years and they’re wonderful people. The congregation knows them, loves them dearly and picked this up on their own. They didn’t have to be asked to support the Behennas. All we had to do was provide them the space to exercise their care for the family.”

Vicki and Scott are also taking their initiative nationwide. Online donations for Michael’s defense can be made at www.defendmichael.com. All donations to this fund will be used exclusively for attorney fees and expenses associated with Michael’s defense and will be maintained in an independently administered trust account.

Scott notes, “We don’t have much family here, so a lot of friends rallied to our aid and built the Web site www.defendmichael.com and the Facebook page, defendmichael, which had over 1,000 members in a few days.”
Financial donations will defray the legal cost of the appeal. If the court grants a second trial, the need for financial support will be even more dire.

Scott adds: “The cards, letters and e-mails of prayerful support help maintain us and Michael through this ordeal. It helps tremendously to have people who support you even though they cannot know everything you are going through. The highlight of Michael’s day in Leavenworth is opening supportive letters from people in Edmond and all over
the United States.”

As of this writing, a military judge has recommended that Michael’s sentence be reduced from 25 years to 18 years. But the fight goes on and Michael will be in Leavenworth for some time as his case winds its way through the legal process. Until then, his parents have resolved to keep his cause alive.

“I promised Michael the last time I saw him that I would not let this issue die and that I would let everybody know what happened to him,” says Vicki.

Michael served in D Company, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division.
To learn more about Michael’s case, visit www.defendmichael.com

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