Michael Behenna won’t ignore phone calls from the president of the United States anymore.
The 35-year-old Guthrie man and former soldier, who was convicted by a military court of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone after killing a suspected al-Qaida terrorist in Iraq, was on the phone with his father when he saw a strange number pop up on the screen.
“I didn’t answer it,” Behenna said. “My voicemail says … it’s the White House. The president wants to talk to you. When you get a chance, call this number back. I was in shock. I called back and (they) said the president is on the other line. He’ll call you back. A minute later, the president called back. He goes, ‘This is the president. I just want to let you know you’re fully pardoned. You’re record is being expunged.”
On Monday, President Donald Trump signed an executive grant of clemency for the former Army first lieutenant, according to the White House.
In 2009, a military jury at Fort Campbell, Kentucky convicted Behenna of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone. Near Beiji, Iraq, a few weeks after two members of his platoon died in an improvised bomb attack, Behenna and other U.S. soldiers took al-Qaida operative Ali Mansur to a culvert, where Behenna cut off the man’s clothes, ordered him to sit on a rock and questioned him at gunpoint.
Behenna suspected Mansur was involved in the deadly bomb attack, which wounded two others. He has maintained that during his questioning of Mansur, the man tried to take his weapon, and he reacted with deadly force. Behenna was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The term was later reduced to 15 years.
In 2014, Behenna was granted parole by the U.S. Army Clemency and Parole Board, after serving five years of his 15-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He was to remain on parole until 2024.
The White House cited support for Behenna among the military, elected leaders and many in the public as part of the reason for his pardon.
“Further, while serving his sentence, Mr. Behenna was a model prisoner,” the White House said in a statement. “In light of these facts, Mr. Behenna is entirely deserving of this grant of executive clemency.”
Behenna said his conversation with Trump was emotional.
“I’m not kidding you, I was sweating,” he said. “My heart was beating fast. I had big ol’ tears in my eyes. He said he’d heard about my case, and ‘you have a lot of support behind you. Your case came highly recommended.’ I’m choked up and I’m trying to say, ‘Thank you very much.’”
Since his conviction, Behenna’s family worked tirelessly for his pardon.
His mother, Vicki Behenna, is a high-powered attorney and former federal prosecutor in Oklahoma City. On Monday, she remained in shock after hearing the news she had hoped for over the course of several years.
“We’re still trying to get our heads around it,” she said. “Obviously, we’re eternally grateful. It’s wonderful.”
Her work to gain her son’s pardon included enlisting the help of high-ranking officials across the country and the Sooner State.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter repeatedly called on the White House to pardon Behenna.
“I think the pardon is long-awaited, justified and it’s a great day for Michael Behenna and his family,” Hunter said. “He’s got his reputation back. I can’t say enough about how privileged my office is to be of some small assistance in this decision. It’s important and it’s well-deserved.”
Behenna will have his freedoms restored, including the right to travel where he wishes, when he wishes.
“It feels great,” he said. “The ball and chain is gone.”
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