Before he spent five years in prison for murdering a suspected al-Qaeda detainee, Michael Behenna was a rising military officer from a prominent law enforcement family.
Behenna — whose mother helped prosecute Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and whose father worked as an FBI analyst and Oklahoma state investigator — has always insisted he acted in self-defense when he killed Ali Mansur. Behenna was paroled five years ago after an effort to overturn his conviction failed. Now he is seeking a different path to vindication: a presidential pardon.
It is a bold ask for someone who stripped a prisoner naked, interrogated him without authorization, shot him twice and then claimed at his court-martial that he was protecting himself. But Behenna, now a 35-year-old ranch hand, is pitching his case at an opportune moment for U.S. military members accused of war crimes.
Trump tweeted last month that Eddie Gallagher — a Navy SEAL charged with fatally stabbing a teenage ISIS prisoner under his care in Iraq and then holding his reenlistment ceremony with his corpse — would be moved to a less restrictive confinement before his trial.
“In honor of his past service to our Country,” Trump said on Twitter. And in December, Trump tweeted that he would review the case of Matt Golsteyn, an Army major and former Green Beret who admitted to killing a suspected Taliban bombmaker in Afghanistan and burning his body. “A U.S. Military hero,” Trump declared on Twitter.
There are signs that lobbying efforts on Behenna’s behalf may be having an impact, too.
“We know we have a president who is very sympathetic to the very difficult situation that soldiers, sailors and Marines were put in during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars,” said John Richter, a former head of the Justice Department’s criminal division who is representing Behenna and has spoken to White House officials about his case.
Behenna was told that he had to complete his parole in 2024 before he could seek a pardon recommendation from the Justice Department. But two months ago, he said he learned that the agency might be considering his application, after all.
Rosalind Sargent-Burns, the agency’s deputy pardon attorney, had called with questions about his case.
“Sounds like your pardon request and paperwork [are] being processed,” Behenna’s parole officer texted him.
Sargent-Burns declined a request to discuss Behenna’s case.
Since Behenna’s conviction, elected officials and retired military brass have come forward to support his unsuccessful court appeals and, more recently, his pardon request. Among his backers: former Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin (R) and state Attorney General Mike Hunter (R), as well as more than three dozen retired generals and admirals, including retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, who, up until January, served as a Trump administration special envoy for the Persian Gulf.
Behenna is hopeful but cautious. A presidential pardon, which can be granted only to people convicted of federal crimes, can restore the right to vote, the ability to hold political office, obtain certain jobs, or, as Behenna would like to do, adopt a child.
“I am not expecting anything, because this is a lesson I learned years ago in my trial,” said Behenna, who called the pardon “a way to ask for forgiveness from the country I fought for . . . and a way for me to get justice for a trial that was unjust.”
Carnage from a roadside bomb
On April 21, 2008, Behenna was riding in the second of a three-truck convoy north of Baghdad when the third vehicle behind him suddenly shot into the sky, blown up by a roadside bomb.
As Behenna, then a 24-year-old lieutenant, looked out the side mirror, whorls of smoke and dust blanketed the air. He made his way to the third truck and immediately performed CPR on his dying comrade, Sgt. Adam Kohlhaas, 26. A second friend, Sgt. Steven Christofferson, 20, who lost a coin toss and had to man the gun turret, was also killed — his body cut in half after the truck landed 75 feet from the blast site on its top.
Behenna was familiar with explosions and death before he arrived in Iraq. He was in fifth grade in 1995 when McVeigh, a Persian Gulf War veteran, detonated a truck bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. One of the victims was Behenna’s middle-school baseball coach.
But he’d never seen carnage up close. Shortly after his friends’ deaths in the roadside bombing, Behenna seized on a new intelligence report revealing the identity of an al-Qaeda operative who possibly helped orchestrate the explosion: Ali Mansur. Mansur was found at his house with several weapons, including an illegal machine gun and an Iraqi passport indicating that he’d made two trips to Syria, “a known training ground for terrorists,” according to Behenna’s pardon application.
Mansur was interrogated but freed because the military could not find conclusive evidence linking him to the explosion, the pardon application says.
Behenna was livid when Mansur was released. And it was Behenna who was ordered to transport him back to his village and set him free.
'In total shock'
Less than a month later, out by a secluded railroad culvert near the northern town of Baiji, Behenna decided to interrogate Mansur again on his own.
“I stripped him naked to intimidate him,” Behenna said. “I told him I wanted more intel on local leaders of al-Qaeda, and that I wanted him to tell me about his stops in Saudi Arabia and Syria, and the [roadside] bomb explosion. But he kept saying, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ ”
Finally, Mansur said something in Arabic that Behenna didn’t understand. He turned to his interpreter for help, he said, but that’s when he heard something hit the culvert’s wall. When he pivoted back to the prisoner, Behenna claims Mansur had just thrown a rock and was now standing up and reaching for his Glock. Behenna stepped to the side and fired one shot into Mansur’s chest, the next to his head.
“I was in disbelief that just happened,” Behenna recalled. “I just remember this numb feeling. I was in total shock.”
Behenna left the body in the culvert and didn’t tell anyone.
Then he went back to his base.
The next day, Iraqi police found Mansur’s body, and Behenna was later charged with premeditated murder. He faced life in prison without parole. The whole time their son was under investigation, his parents, lifelong criminal investigators, said they never felt disappointed or embarrassed.
“When he got charged, I wasn’t like, ‘Dear God, what are people going to think?’ I was thinking, ‘What can I do to help my son?’ ” recalled Vicki Behenna, who is now the executive director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, which works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.
At his 2009 court-martial, military prosecutors at Fort Campbell, Ky., told the jury they believed Behenna executed Mansur to avenge the loss of his two soldiers in the roadside explosion, according to press coverage of the trial.
Prosecutors said Behenna ordered another soldier, Staff Sgt. Hal Warner, to burn the body with an “incendiary” grenade — an accusation that Behenna denies and that two other witnesses said they never heard. (Warner pleaded guilty to assault, maltreatment of a subordinate and making a false statement and was sentenced to 17 months in prison.)
As his trial wound down, Behenna took the stand.
“I was scared Ali Mansur was going to take my weapon and use it against me,” he told the military panel of seven officers. “This happened very fast.” He described the sequence of his movements — turning to face Mansur and stepping to the left before firing two shots.
In the gallery, the government’s own forensics expert was listening, concerned, according to Behenna’s pardon application. The expert had outlined a similar scenario to prosecutors the day before.
But the prosecution rested its case without calling the expert, portraying Behenna as an unprovoked aggressor.
The next day, Behenna was found guilty of unpremeditated murder, a result that spared him of the possibility of life in prison without parole. Still, he filed for a mistrial, contending prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence — a constitutional violation — and should have immediately alerted him since the expert’s testimony could have benefited his case. The judge denied the motion. Behenna appealed to a higher court for a new trial, but lost, 3 to 2. Ultimately, Behenna’s 25-year sentence was reduced to 15.
In early 2013, four years into his prison term at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., 37 retired military generals and admirals, including five four-stars, sent an amicus brief to the Supreme Court urging the justices to review his case and clarify the self-defense rights of service members in combat zones. “[A]ssuming that Lieutenant Behenna’s claim that Mansur lunged for his weapon is truthful — an assumption made by [the country’s highest military appeals court] that this Court must also make — it would have been a dereliction of duty for Lt. Behenna not to fire in self-defense,” they wrote.
Though the Supreme Court didn’t accept his case, Behenna was released a year later on March 14, 2014, a moment the Oklahoman featured on its front page with an enormous photo of Behenna hugging his sister-in-law, while his mother was bawling off to the side.
Now, as Behenna seeks another front-page headline, he spends his days near his hometown north of Oklahoma City, feeding cattle on a commercial ranch and raising goats and chickens at his own 20-acre property.
In his living room, he displays a framed photograph of Kohlhaas and Christofferson with the son of an Iraqi villager sitting between them. His comrades are smiling and laughing, and the boy is wearing one of their helmets and a pair of their sunglasses. It was taken the day before they were killed — and the day before Behenna’s life changed.
“I was responsible for them,” Behenna said. “I’m afraid if I didn’t see the picture as often as I do, then maybe I would forget them.”