One shot was all it took to turn Derrick Miller, a Maryland National Guardsman with no criminal record, into a convicted murderer in prison for life. Derrick thought he was protecting his unit from Taliban attack; the Army called it premeditated murder. That shot was fired while Derrick was on his third combat deployment. His unit was in Afghanistan, surrounded by hostile villages and being attacked several times a day. Derrick’s unit had received intelligence that they should expect Taliban forces disguised as civilians to infiltrate American lines in order to spy on American forces and better target their attacks. On September 26, 2010, a private came to Derrick with news of a possible Taliban insurgent inside American lines. The suspect was dressed in civilian clothes and claimed to be there to fix the electrical line. But Derrick and the private both identified him with “a hundred percent” certainty as the same man who had passed through on the previous day under suspicious circumstances, driving a truck filled with AK-47s and other equipment commonly used by Taliban fighters.
Derrick pulled the suspect aside for interrogation, along with another soldier and an Afghan interpreter. During the interrogation, the suspect’s story kept changing: first he was there to fix the electricity, then he was there to fix the water pump—but he wasn’t carrying any tools. He claimed that he couldn’t drive—but he was carrying car keys. He couldn’t tell a straight story about where he lived, either. Derrick, who had been trained in how to recognize enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), was sure the suspect was lying. Derrick asked, “Where did the troops go? Where is the attack coming from?” Still no straight answer. Derrick said he would kill the suspect if he didn’t start answering questions. While the Army does not officially endorse threats as a method of interrogation, Derrick believed he needed to get information that would save American lives. It was an empty threat at the time. But when the suspect began to fight with Derrick, trying to take his pistol away from him, Derrick shot him once in the head, killing him. Other soldiers came running, and Derrick immediately took responsibility for what he had done. Less than an hour later, just as Derrick had anticipated, the unit was attacked from three different directions. The attack was targeted on the Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant’s trucks, which suggests that the Taliban indeed had some inside information about the layout of the American camp.
Although Derrick wasn’t happy about the shooting, he believed he had done what was necessary, and he trusted the other two witnesses to confirm his story. Derrick trusted the wrong people. The Army charged him with premeditated murder. At the trial, the Afghan interpreter testified that the suspect did not fight Derrick; the Army helped him get asylum and a path to American citizenship. The other soldier initially backed up Derrick’s story, stating in a sworn statement on the day of the incident that Derrick shot the suspect in the course of a “struggle” during which the suspect was “swinging his arms” at Derrick. Afterwards, Army investigators threatened him with being charged as an accessory, and his story changed. At trial, he denied there was any struggle. As for the Afghan suspect, his true identity and intentions remain unknown to this day. Although the Army was unable even to confirm the man’s name, everything we know about him suggests he was indeed Taliban. For the Taliban suspect’s death, Derrick was convicted of premeditated murder.
Derrick is a man of stellar character. Married with two young children, he volunteered for two of his three combat deployments, and, at the time of the incident, had recently been promoted to Sergeant. The soldiers he served with described him as an “outstanding soldier” in the “top 5 percentile” of NCOs, who was “peaceful,” “calm,” and the “moral compass” of his unit. The only reason Derrick detained the Afghan suspect was that he believed that interrogating him would save lives. The testimony of Derrick’s comrades backs up everything from the intelligence about Taliban surveillance to the identification of the Afghan man as the truck driver to the subsequent attack. Moreover, because Derrick’s offense was committed in a unique combat context, it will never recur. When he is released, he will return to the peaceful, law-abiding life he has always lived.
But, because Derrick was convicted of premeditated murder, the court martial members were not free to consider his character or the context of the shooting in their sentencing decision. In the military system, premeditated murder carries a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole, so life with parole was the sentence Derrick got.
A mandatory minimum life sentence is starkly disproportionate to the crime. While Derrick does not dispute the validity of his conviction, the approximately five years he has already served is enough to atone for any crime he committed. And even if the court martial members rejected Derrick’s self-defense argument, the facts of the crime show that the shooting is better described as voluntary manslaughter, an offense that carries a maximum fifteen-year sentence. Derrick, who is African-American, is serving a longer sentence than most of the Caucasian soldiers who committed combat-related homicides. Worse, Derrick, a soldier who killed in defense of his comrades, faces more time in prison than most civilian murderers. We are therefore asking the President and the Secretary of the Army to commute the remainder of Derrick’s sentence and to reduce his offense to voluntary manslaughter.
As Americans, we have a right to expect our government to protect us from criminals. Derrick Miller is not a criminal. And our country does not need another African-American man taken away from his children to serve unnecessary prison time. We ask everyone who supports our troops overseas—everyone who supports the right of self-defense—and everyone who believes that the punishment should fit the crime to support our Petition.