Every morning, Clint Lorance wakes up in his Army-issued prison cell at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and looks at a photo of two dead Afghan men.
To this day, the former first lieutenant does not know their names, but he knows he is responsible for their deaths.
In August 2013, Lorance was sentenced to 20 years for murder after he ordered soldiers in his unit to kill the pair as they sped toward their platoon in Kandahar province on a motorbike and ignored commands to stop. Lorance never fired a shot, but the men would turn out to be unarmed.
Now lawyers and others working on Lorance’s behalf are seeking to exonerate the 30-year-old — only the second Army officer charged with murder in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — claiming that he did not receive a fair trial.
At Lorance’s court-martial, the majority of the men in his platoon testified against him, including the two soldiers who fired their weapons during the brief engagement in July 2012. On the stand, the soldiers said that the Afghans posed no threat and that there was no reason to shoot them. Maj. Gen. Richard D. Clarke, who as commanding officer of the 82nd Airborne Division had the authority to oversee Lorance’s case, recently upheld the conviction.
But John Maher, Lorance’s attorney, said the jury was never informed that those soldiers were offered immunity from murder charges to testify against his client — a disclosure that Maher says could have influenced a jury. Maher, a retired Army judge advocate general officer, also said Lorance acted within the law that summer day.
“This is not a case where a depraved soldier intended to kill indiscriminately,” Maher wrote in a filing to the 82nd Airborne leadership. “This is the case of a patriotic and loyal infantry officer who zealously sought to protect his paratroopers.”
The case now sits with the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals at Fort Belvoir, Va. In an interview, Maher said he is filing a motion to the court to have Clarke review the case a second time.
In the meantime, he and Lorance’s supporters have built support for his case. An online White House petition they started to request a presidential pardon has accumulated more than 102,000 signatures. Three lawmakers — Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a major in the Marine Reserves; Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), a retired Navy SEAL officer; and Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee — have called on Army Secretary John McHugh to examine the case.
“While the rules of engagement are in place for a reason and serve a critical purpose, any case that projects an alleged violation of the rules of engagement deserves a high level of attention and scrutiny,” the congressmen wrote in a letter to McHugh. “It is our belief, based on information brought to our attention, that Lorance’s case requires further review.”
Lorance’s new effort for clemency began after he stumbled across a book in the Leavenworth prison library about the fight to clear the name of a U.S. Army officer after he was convicted of collaborating with the enemy during the Korean War. On a lark, Lorance contacted Don Snyder, the author of “A Soldier’s Disgrace,” who campaigned to expunge the criminal record of Maj. Ronald Alley.
Now Snyder — in tandem with Lorance’s attorney — is crusading once again on the behalf of a soldier convicted in wartime.
“We just can’t turn against our soldiers when they come home,” said Snyder, who added that he is not being compensated for work on Lorance’s case. Snyder said he believes that Lorance has fallen victim to an Army leadership that was concerned about public perception of civilian deaths after the massacre of 16 Afghans by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.
“I think Clint walked right into it,” Snyder said. “He was scapegoated.”
Early in his Afghanistan deployment, Lorance had been thrust into the command of a bloodied platoon. The lieutenant Lorance replaced had been hit by an improvised explosive device and was sprayed with shrapnel across his abdomen, and a private lost his right arm below the elbow and a right leg below the knee. Another soldier in the unit had been shot in the throat, and the bullet fractured his spine, paralyzing him.
Less than a week into his new command, Lorance led his men and a small coalition of Afghan troops on a patrol. Not long after stepping off post, the soldiers were maneuvering single-file through rows of grapevines when one of Lorance’s men spotted three Afghans on a motorcycle traveling fast in their direction.
The rules of engagement for U.S. troops indicate that they may open fire only if they detect hostile intent or actions. Lorance quickly ordered one of his soldiers to shoot the Afghans after they refused to stop.
After the first soldier missed, Lorance ordered a second trooper manning an M240B machine gun to open fire. Two of the Afghans died in the fusillade while the third escaped.
When the soldiers located the bodies of the dead Afghans, they found no weapons, radios, cellphones or other suspicious equipment common for Taliban fighters to carry into combat. Instead, a search revealed three cucumbers, a pair of scissors, an identification card and a flashlight.
The Army charged Lorance with murder and other crimes, including obstruction of justice, after he falsely stated to commanders that the platoon did not examine the bodies because villagers had already taken them for burial. He also was charged in several unrelated incidents, including threatening to kill local farmers and ordering a marksman, for no justified reason, to shoot at a group of Afghan children.
At his trial, several soldiers in his platoon testified that Lorance had told the men before the patrol to disregard the known rules of engagement and shoot any Afghans riding motorcycles.
James Skelton, the soldier who fired the first shots, said on the stand that “there was not a reason to shoot” at the Afghan men. David Shilo, who fired the machine gun, testified that “my life wasn’t threatened at the time.”
The identity of the two men killed in the July shooting remains a mystery. But Maher, Lorance’s attorney, said Army intelligence records cite the account of one Afghan who identified them as relatives of a known Taliban bomber. Maher said that evidence should have been entered into trial.
In a letter Lorance wrote to the 82nd Airborne commanding general, the soldier acknowledged that he thinks about the men he ordered killed every day.
“The thing that haunts me the most is that I will never know for sure who those men really were,” Lorance wrote. “The way I see it is that if there is any small chance these people were not Taliban I owe it to myself to never forget their faces. And Sir, even if they were Taliban, it is important to me to remember that even the enemy are people. And human life is precious. Regardless of your decision, Sir, it will be my burden to bear.”