A nonprofit and a team of law-school students want President Obama to reduce sentences for convicted troops they say have been unfairly judged. They include Robert Bales, an Army staff sergeant based at JBLM who was convicted of murdering 16 Afghan civilians in 2012.
KERNERSVILLE, N.C. — An unusual coalition of largely older and conservative former military men and younger, left-leaning law students are waging a joint campaign for one of the most unlikely causes: clemency for troops convicted of killing civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The push started with Herbert Donahue, a retired Marine Corps major, and his tiny organization, United American Patriots, tucked in a quiet Kernersville office park.
Donahue says he was called to his work by his own war experience. In 44 months in Vietnam as a Marine rifleman, he was shot twice, bloodied by a mortar shell and had most of his teeth smashed out in a helicopter crash. But he declined three Purple Hearts because anyone formally recognized for being wounded that often was sent home from the war zone.
“I know what combat is, I’ve seen the beast a thousand times,” Donahue, 72, said as he looked at the Silver Star, Bronze Star and other military honors on his office wall. “It can be real murky. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of making a moral decision.”
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Recently, he gained an unexpected ally. A team of University of Chicago Law School students formed a group focused on helping convicted troops, the Combat Clemency Project.
“I don’t pretend to know anything about the military; for me it is about mercy,” said Eamonn Hart, 29, a third-year law student who was raised by what he called “lefty, ’60s activist parents” who took him to protests of the invasion of Iraq. The students are focusing on the mental health of those convicted and other mitigating circumstances.
For 10 years, Donahue had become accustomed to working largely alone. United American Patriots has paid for lawyers, family visits and other support, arguing that troops under intense pressure in combat zones are often unfairly judged and given harsh sentences because the public has sanitized and unrealistic expectations of war.
Few military colleagues have backed Donahue, and some have openly called him a traitor.
The public response to donation requests had been so cool that at one point he mortgaged his house to keep the operation going.
But in 2015, the lawyer of one of the soldiers contacted the University of Chicago and sparked the interest of students in the legal-aid clinic, who then contacted Donahue. “I didn’t think much of it when they first called me, because they are just a bunch of damn liberals,” he said. “But I have to commend the students; they have gone above and beyond.”
The two groups are working together to push President Obama to reduce sentences and grant pardons for seven convicted war criminals.
This spring, Hart submitted a clemency petition for Corey Clagett, a former Army private who pleaded guilty to shooting two unarmed detainees in Iraq in 2006, killings that an Army investigation found were ordered by Clagett’s staff sergeant. The staff sergeant, Raymond Girouard, was also convicted in the killings, but his case was dismissed on appeal. He was given back pay and discharged under honorable conditions after serving 3 ½ years in prison. Clagett was sentenced to 18 years.
The students and United American Patriots approach the issue differently. Donahue says troops sometimes are held to unfair standards by senior officers who know little about combat.
“In Vietnam I was supposed to radio in to ask permission every time I opened fire, but there wasn’t time,” Donahue said. “So after my second patrol I never called back to request permission until I was sitting on a mountain of bodies. Today you couldn’t do that. It’s gotten so a guy has to have a lawyer in the foxhole next to him. If I had it the way guys do today I’d have been court-martialed a thousand times.”
The law-school group, led by professor Mark Heyrman, is reluctant to embrace that argument and is looking instead toward problems such as mental health.
“We agree on the bottom line, that soldiers are being excessively punished,” Heyrman said. “The concern is that United American Patriots are trying to say we should go back to the way we did it in Vietnam. I don’t know if that is a winning public message.”
Heyrman, who worked with Obama when he was a law professor at the University of Chicago, said he doubted that argument would work with the president.
For both groups mercy has its limits. They chose not to be advocates of troops convicted of premeditated crimes that combined rape and murder. But after some debate they decided to urge leniency for Robert Bales, an Army staff sergeant based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord who was sentenced in 2013 to life in prison without parole for the murders of 16 Afghan civilians, including seven children, in 2012.
“Friends of mine pushed back saying, ‘How can you represent this guy when there are innocent people who could use your help?’ I have honestly questioned my own involvement,” said Michael Lockman, 31, a third-year law student who wrote the clemency petition for Bales, the father of two from Lake Tapps, Pierce County. “But when you really start to learn about some of these cases, there is a clear case for mercy. The man had clear mental-health issues the Army knew about but chose to ignore. There is shared responsibility for his crime.”
The Army determined the sergeant had post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury after his third combat deployment in 2010, and then deployed him to Afghanistan, where his symptoms worsened and he massacred villagers he suspected of harboring insurgents. Lockman is asking the president to reduce Bales’ sentence to 100 years, which would make him eligible for parole in 2023.
Donahue and the students admit the push is a longshot. Few in the public appear to support revisiting cases in which troops killed unarmed civilians. A Whitehouse.gov petition the students created seeking 100,000 signatures has garnered only about 2,100. And Obama has given no indication he considers the sentences unjust.
There is some precedent for reducing military sentences. After World War II, the War Department set up a clemency board that commuted sentences in 85 percent of thousands of serious cases it reviewed from the war. During Vietnam, a number of young men sentenced to life in prison for killings later had their sentences reduced to only a few years by similar boards.
In March, Clagett, the former Army private, was released on parole after 10 years, in large part because United American Patriots paid for a private lawyer. The day he got out of prison, the group offered him a job.
“I do mostly outreach, tell my story,” Clagett said recently. “I let people know these things aren’t always clear cut, and often it’s the lowest-ranking guy who gets blamed.”