In 22 and 26 days, respectively, appeal hearings will be held for two U.S. Army soldiers, Sgt. 1st Class Kelly A. Stewart and 1LT Michael C. Behenna.
The hearings could leave permanent and indelible marks on the lives of these young men who served their country with honor during times of war, were wrongfully convicted and sentenced for crimes they did not commit and, eventually, became good friends while imprisoned at the U.S. Military Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Better still, they could go a long way toward making right the worst kinds of wrongs.
Before I share more details about these soldiers and their friendship behind bars, allow me to share information about these soldiers’ respective cases and hearings scheduled to take place next month:
• On April 19 at 10 a.m. Eastern, a three-judge panel at the Army Court of Criminal Appeals will begin hearing the case of SFC Stewart, the Green Beret whose life and wrongful conviction are chronicled in my book, Three Days In August: A U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier’s Fight For Military Justice. It represents his next-to-last level of the appeals process for the soldier after being convicted Aug. 23, 2009, of sex crimes against a German woman spending and being sentenced to 8 years behind bars despite, among other things, a complete lack of evidence and witnesses to corroborate his accuser’s claims. Stewart’s hearing is OPEN TO THE PUBLIC and will take place inside a building at 9275 Gunston Road on the grounds of Fort Belvoir, Va. More details and update here.
• On April 23 at 9 a.m. Eastern, a five-judge panel at the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces will begin hearing opening arguments in the final appeal of Lieutenant Behenna, the Edmond, Okla., native about whom I’ve written and published more than 60 articles since June 2009. It represents the final level of the appeal process for the Army Ranger officer who, despite an expert witness’ conclusion that he acted in self defense (see this post and this post for more details), was convicted May 16, 2008, and sentenced to 25 years in prison for the killing of a known Al-Qaeda operative in Iraq before twice having his sentence reduced by five-year blocks to 15 years. Behenna’s hearing is OPEN TO THE PUBLIC and will take place inside a courthouse located at 450 E. Street, Northwest, Washington D.C. More details and updates here.
THE FRIENDSHIP BEHIND BARS
During an interview about five months before I published the book about Stewart’s case, I asked him about his relationships with Behenna inside the walls of the notorious military prison. His lengthy answers included several examples of how an unofficial hierarchy and terms of respect exist among inmates.
“Where you sit when it’s movie night in your respective sections pretty much shows who you are,” Stewart said. “The guy that’s in the front row is the one that’s running things. In each one of the rows, the guy that’s in the center of that row runs that thing for that row. Everybody knows that.”
“If you’re a front-row guy and you get up and leave, you hand the remote back to the guy in the center of the next row behind you,” he continued. “Then, when we go to the chow hall, there’s limited seating area — and, just like you see in every movie, certain people only sit in certain areas and (everyone) knows that.”
Asked where he and Mike fit into the prison hierarchy, Stewart said, “Mike and I (could) sit wherever we want to in the chow hall.”
As for their relationship while behind bars, Stewart was clear: “There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for Mike in prison, and there’s nothing Mike wouldn’t do for me in prison.”
In August 2010, Stewart had his sentence reduced to 3 years, became eligible for parole and was released from prison March 31, 2011. Now on parole until August, he will be able to attend his hearing in person. Behenna will not.
UPDATE 7/5/12 at 6:09 p.m. Central: Sad news. The Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces upheld by a 3-2 margin the conviction of Michael Behenna, according to this report. This means that, without a presidential pardon, the 29-year-old soldier will remain behind bars until he turns 40.
Attend my next book-signing event Saturday, May 19, 1 to 3 p.m., at Barnes & Noble in St. Peters, Mo. Details here.