Seven law students and a professor are working to lessen the sentences of combat veterans convicted of killing civilians overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mark Heyrman, clinical professor at the Law School, ran the Mental Health Advocacy Clinic, which now includes the Combat Clemency Project, at the Law School for 35 years, representing clients with mental illness. When approached by one of the veterans’ lawyers this past October with the opportunity for his students to represent several combat veterans with mental health issues, Heyrman and seven student volunteers got to work.
“One of the messages that cuts across all seven clients,” said third-year law student Michael Lockman, “is shared responsibility and institutional responsibility…. You can’t prevent any kind of loss of civilian life by punishing individuals. There has to be a systemic solution.”
Shortly after the seven cases were assigned to students, they traveled individually to interview and conduct psychiatric evaluations of their clients, six of whom were at Fort Leavenworth, KS. Their travel was paid in part by United American Patriots, a conservative organization led by Herbert Donahue. The group argues that troops are sometimes held to unfair standards by their senior officers.
“I didn’t think much of it when they first called me because they are just a bunch of damn liberals,” Donahue told The New York Times. “But I have to commend the students, they have gone above and beyond.”
Lockman’s client is Robert Bales, a former United States Army soldier who killed 16 Afghan civilians in 2012. In 2013, Bales pleaded guilty for 16 counts of murder as well as six counts of assault and attempted murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Prior to committing his crime, the Army determined that Bales had sustained a traumatic brain injury and had post-traumatic stress disorder. However, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where his symptoms worsened and where he would later commit his crime.
Lockman filed a 60-page clemency report on Bales’ behalf, asking to lessen his sentence to 100 years. Clemency reports serve to identify prisoners who deserve shorter sentences. In this scenario, Bales would be eligible for parole in 2023.
The petitions were submitted to the President, the Secretary of the Army, and the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice. Heyrman estimates that right now, there are about 10,000 clemency petitions submitted for the President to review.
“We are trying to get the President’s attention on our seven cases,” Heyrman said. “The problem is that the President has no obligation to act on a clemency brief.”
The Clemency Project has gotten coverage in The New York Times as well as various other news outlets. They have additionally started an online petition and had legislators call attention to their clients.
Heyrman is unsure whether the Combat Clemency Project at the Law School will continue next year and has made no decisions on whether or not they will take on any new cases. Six of the seven student volunteers are graduating, and they no longer have obligations to their clients.
“I think what my students and I came to understand is that [the United States] undertook two wars and [we] don’t have an active draft,” Heyrman said. “We needed lots of soldiers, and [the country] could not afford to be careful if those soldiers were mentally, physically, socially able to be in these kinds of tough situations…it would be helpful for Americans to think that we are going to have more combat-related crimes unless we do a better job.”