When her phone rang at about 8:45 a.m. Wednesday and she saw Michael’s number on caller ID, Vicki Behenna momentarily held her breath.
“Your heart stops,” Behenna said of her anxiety at the moment.
Michael’s first parole hearing was Jan. 9 before the Army Clemency and Parole Board in Washington, D.C., and family members were expecting to hear the results within a couple of weeks.
Behenna, 30, was serving a 15-year sentence after being convicted of unpremeditated murder in the killing of an Iraqi national in 2008. The Edmond solider testified that he acted in self defense while on mission in Iraq.
Vicki picked up the phone and said, “What’s going on?”
Then Michael told his mother the words she longed to hear — he had been granted parole. He will be a free man on March 14. He learned the news in a letter delivered to him at Fort Leavenworth.
“I just started crying. I couldn’t stop,” the federal prosecutor said. “He said, ‘I love you. I love you guys.’ He sounded like he was in shock.”
Vicki said they had a 10- or 15-minute conversation. One of the last things he talked about was his concern for others incarcerated under similar unjust circumstances at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth.
It’s not the first time he has spoken about the subject. Vicki said she is committed to doing what she can to help the others and their families.
During the fall of 2010, the Behenna’s organized a freedom ride for the Leavenworth 10 to raise awareness about their cases. In addition to Michael the members were at the time: Sgt. Evan Vela Carnahan; Pfc. Corey Clagett; Staff Sgt. Raymond Girouard; Master Sgt. John E. Hatley; Spec. William B. Hunsaker; Sgt. Larry Hutchins; Sgt. Michael Leahy; Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Mayo; and Sgt. Michael P. Williams. The Behennas said the men were decorated soldiers and Marines serving sentences between 10-40 years apiece.
Vicki said the family is thankful to all those who have showed various forms of support during the five-year-long legal process. Among them are members of the Edmond community including her church family, other Oklahomans, members of the Oklahoma congressional delegation and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin.
“I am glad this long ordeal has finally come to an end for Michael Behenna and his family,” Fallin said in a statement issued Wednesday. “Michael went to Iraq to serve his nation and to defend liberty both here and abroad. Instead, he found himself mourning the loss of his friends from the inside of a cell.
“I believe the Army acted appropriately and compassionately in offering him parole.”
Members of the Oklahoma congressional delegation united their efforts on behalf of Behenna and his family by sending letters of support to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks and the U.S. Army Clemency and Parole Board asking for careful consideration of the facts and circumstances surrounding the case, as well as the behavior and progress Behenna made during incarceration.
“I am incredibly relieved that the Behenna family will finally be reunited with their son, Michael, after more than five years apart,” said U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Edmond. “Vicki and Scott Behenna have worked tirelessly to support their son. My staff and I have worked closely with the Army and members of the Oklahoma congressional delegation to ensure that we supported Michael and his family through the long, legal process. I will continue to lift them in my prayers as they move forward with the next chapter of their lives.”
At about 11 a.m. Wednesday, Shannon Whal, Michael Behenna’s longtime girlfriend, was anxiously awaiting to hear the sound of the man she had known since childhood and wanted to build a future around.
“I just lost it,” Whal said of her reaction when she heard the news. “It’s uncontrollable joy right now.”
In July 2008, the U.S. Army charged 1st Lt. Behenna with premeditated murder in the death of a purported Al Qaeda operative. The charge was amended to unpremeditated murder. Whal said the family is hoping to have Michael exonerated.
Without parole or a new trial, Behenna would have been freed when he is 40 years old, according to family members.
Houston attorney Jack Zimmermann, Behenna’s lead defense counsel during earlier portions of the military legal process, said the credit for the action belongs to Michael’s parents who never gave up. Zimmermann said he spoke to Vicki on the phone Wednesday morning. He described her as a very humble person.
“It’s a great day for the Behenna family,” Zimmermann said.
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