Surprising supporters shortly after his arrival in Edmond, Michael Behenna, 30, stepped through the garage of his parents’ home to speak with reporters and wellwishers.
“It was an emotional day for me,” Michael said as his mother and father stood at his side.
Behenna was released from a Fort Leavenworth penitentiary earlier Friday morning.
In July 2008, the U.S. Army charged Lt. Michael Behenna with premeditated murder for the death of purported Al Qaeda operative and terrorist Ali Mansur. Behenna received a 25-year sentence that later was reduced to a 15-year sentence.
Behenna’s parents, Scott and Vicki Behenna, of Edmond, fought vigorously through the court system to gain Michael’s freedom. Through appeals and pleas for parole and clemency, the Behenna family was surprised about a month ago when Michael was handed a letter in his prison cell stating he would be paroled March 14. At this point, the murder conviction remains on Michael’s record but he has regained his freedom 10 years earlier than expected.
Relatives, friends and neighbors were awaiting his return on the driveway at his parents’ Edmond home. A “Welcome Home Michael” banner was staked in the yard. Yellow ribbon was tied around trees in the neighborhood and on the Behenna’s mailbox.
At about 10:05 a.m. Friday, a white van arrived in a parking lot at the Fort Leavenworth penitentiary.
The van door opened and a dozen family members got their first glimpse of Michael as a free man.
“We all just kind of held our breath,” Vicki Behenna said during a phone interview at about 3:15 p.m. from inside her vehicle on Interstate 35 in the Emporia, Kan., area. “They opened the door and he walked out. You just are so overjoyed that he is free and able to start his life again.”
Vicki said Michael was overwhelmed. His longtime girlfriend Shannon Wahl was there. So were some of Michael’s supporters from the Leavenworth area.
After time for hugs and embraces, the Behenna caravan left Fort Leavenworth and made the fairly short drive to Kansas City. Michael got his first taste of freedom in the form of local barbecue. Michael and his brothers Brett and Curtis were reunited at Curtis’ apartment where he is staying as he goes through medical school.
Scott said it has been a day of renewed experiences for Michael.
At a Fort Leavenworth recreation center, Michael sat in a chair and said it was the most comfortable he’s sat on in five years. At the barbecue restaurant, he enjoyed the taste of his lunch and had a bite here and there from others’ plates. At his brother’s apartment, he had a conversation with family members while he laid on the mattress, which was quite a change from the one in his cell in the Fort Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks.
Once they crossed the Oklahoma state line, a second group of Patriot Guard Riders would escort them from Blackwell to Edmond, where many members of the community have showed their support for Michael in various ways.
Scott said somewhere, sometime Friday, prosecution expert witness Dr. Herbert MacDonell would be making a toast to Michael.
During the trial, MacDonell told military prosecutors the only logical explanation for what happened was that Mansur had to be standing, reaching for Behenna’s gun when he was shot. This contradicted the prosecution’s theory that Mansur was executed while seated on a rock.
Behenna was told by superiors to release Mansur to his village after he was questioned about a roadside bombing that killed soldiers in Behenna’s unit. Behenna decided to stop along the way and further interrogate Mansur, according to court testimony.
Behenna testified that while he was interrogating Mansur he turned his head toward his interpreter, and when he did, Mansur lunged for his gun. Behenna fired a controlled pair of shots.
The jury did not get to hear MacDonell’s testimony that offered a different view of events.
Scott Behenna said when he first saw Michael outside the barracks walls Friday his thoughts went back to Michael’s parole hearing last month. Michael’s brother Brett, now an Oklahoma County assistant district attorney, handled much of the work.
Scott said somebody must have said something or heard something that convinced them that Michael deserved to be freed.
“Today was a 180-degree turn from when they took him away,” Scott said. “Thank God. Thank God that this has happened.”
Vicki Behenna also thanked all the supporters who live across the country and in other countries. The family said at some point, after Michael has become a bit more acclimated, he will make a public thank you.
Behenna’s case, along with nine other soldiers incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth, has created national discussion about military prosecutions for acts committed while the nation was at war.
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