If you were accused of a crime and a witness who testified against you had received immunity for any act he took related to that alleged crime, wouldn’t you want a jury to know about it?
That didn’t happen in the court martial of 1LT Clint Lorance. There were a number of legal missteps in Lorance’s trial, and the nondisclosure about those witnesses is one of the most troubling.
First you have to put Lorance in the context of his assignment. He was a new arrival, a platoon leader who came into what must have surely been a challenging situation. The platoon had to be dispirited because shortly before Lorance became leader, serious injuries had been sustained by some of the soldiers.
The former leader who was popular with his men had been seriously injured when an improvised explosive device blew up. He received wounds to his abdomen, limbs, eyes, and face. Another soldier, a private, lost his right arm below the elbow and right leg below the knee as well as sustaining other injuries. One private took injuries to his thighs and buttocks. A specialist was shot in the throat; he is paralyzed from the waist down.
The area was violent—there was no dispute about that. And there was a massive foreign policy push to avoid at all costs upsetting locals as the president of Afghanistan continued to struggle with factions often at odds over domestic policy in his country. Meanwhile, troop deaths had escalated.
In the United States, a heated presidential election was in progress. President Barack Obama was committed to ending operations in Afghanistan, and things hadn’t gone so smoothly. The challenge for both the government and our troops comprised in part knowing whom to trust. Then Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta had experienced that up close when he visited Kabul in March.
The Washington Post noted: “An Afghan man rammed a stolen pickup truck onto a military airfield in southern Afghanistan and ran from the vehicle in flames just as a plane carrying Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta landed Wednesday, U.S. officials said.”
The paper also pointed out the secretary’s visit was “marked by unprecedented tension between U.S. and Afghan authorities.”
By the time the government decided at Lorance’s court martial, with defense counsel’s approval, to not inform the panel (similar to the jury in civil trials) about immunity provided to key prosecution witnesses, justice had already failed Lorance.
A source close to the family, familiar with the case and the trial transcript, said:
“[T]he entire trial, prosecution, defense, and the Judge, failed American common law traditions of fairness by not telling the jury that the main witnesses for the prosecution received grants of immunity after they were originally ordered to a tent, told they were suspected of murder, left alone to write their statements, and each statement is very similar, nearly too similar to omit the possibility of t‘lining things up.’ Then, after the US Army JAG Corps reads the statements, the legal officer directs that each soldier be issued a ‘cleansing statement,’ because the soldiers had not been read their UCMJ Article 31 rights (akin to the Miranda warnings). Each soldier then waived their rights and received immunity.”
Were other dynamics in play as the platoon’s new leader took charge after horrific injuries to men they’d served alongside for months? Possibly. However, those witnesses who might have faced charges over actions the platoon took that day received a free pass. And they had little loyalty or fondness yet towards a leader who had only been in charge for days.
Even a simple remark, made in jest or in a satiric manner, became fodder for the prosecution’s consistently intense character assassination of Lorance. Until the day of the fatal engagement, Lorance’s record was excellent. The trial transcript reveals a prosecutor whose hyperbole was suspect—he painted Lorance as a man who hated the Afghan people. As a matter of fact, that premise was a key pillar in the prosecutor’s highly questionable case.
To this day, the government has provided no information about the men on the motorcycle in an area everyone knew was sympathetic to Taliban. Attacks against US military were common there. To this day, the government has provided no information whatsoever about the individuals Lorance approved engagement towards.
Lorance did something few are brave enough to do. He didn’t sacrifice his men on the day of the engagement, and he continued to protect them even after. He took responsibility for what happened that day. That in itself is an act of heroism that should have been pointed out repeatedly at trial.
If we as a country disregard justice for a man who agrees to place his life on the line for us, what does that tell others who might consider volunteering to serve?
Official page for Clint Lorance
Political Prisoner Clint Lorance wrongly convicted (Pt. 2)
Dilemma facing boots on the ground (Pt. 1)
(Commentary by Kay B. Day/Oct. 30, 2014)