KERNERSVILLE, N.C. — An unusual coalition of largely older and conservative former military men and younger, left-leaning law students are waging a joint campaign for one of the most unlikely causes: clemency for troops convicted of killing civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The push started with Herbert Donahue, a retired Marine Corps major, and his tiny organization called United American Patriots, tucked in a quiet office park here.
Recently, he gained an unexpected ally. A team of University of Chicago Law School students formed a group focused on helping convicted troops, called the Combat Clemency Project.
“I don’t pretend to know anything about the military; for me it is about mercy,” said Eamonn Hart, 29, a third-year law student who was raised by what he called “lefty, ‘60s activist parents” who took him to protests of the invasion of Iraq. The students are focusing on the mental health conditions of those convicted and other mitigating circumstances.
As part of the project, United American Patriots paid for Mr. Hart and other students to fly to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to interview the prisoners. “Before that, I didn’t understand how confusing things were on the ground in Iraq, how arbitrary the brutality was,” Mr. Hart said.
The students and United American Patriots approach the issue differently. United American Patriots says troops sometimes are held to unfair standards by senior officers who know little about combat.
“In Vietnam I was supposed to radio in to ask permission every time I opened fire, but there wasn’t time,” Mr. Donahue said. “So after my second patrol I never called back to request permission until I was sitting on a mountain of bodies. Today you couldn’t do that. It’s gotten so a guy has to have a lawyer in the foxhole next to him. If I had it the way guys do today I’d have been court-martialed a thousand times.”
The law school group, led by Prof. Mark Heyrman of the school’s legal aid clinic, is reluctant to embrace that argument and is looking instead toward issues like mental health.
“We agree on the bottom line, that soldiers are being excessively punished,” Mr. Heyrman said. “The concern is that United American Patriots are trying to say we should go back to the way we did it in Vietnam. I don’t know if that is a winning public message.”
Mr. Heyrman, who worked with Mr. Obama when he was a law professor at the University of Chicago, said he doubted that argument would work with the president.
For both groups mercy has its limits. They chose not to be advocates of troops convicted of premeditated crimes that combined rape and murder. But after some debate they decided to urge leniency for Robert Bales, an Army staff sergeant sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder of 16 Afghan civilians in 2012.
“Friends of mine pushed back saying, ‘How can you represent this guy when there are innocent people who could use your help?’ I have honestly questioned my own involvement,” said Michael Lockman, 31, a third-year law student who wrote the clemency petition for Mr. Bales. “But when you really start to learn about some of these cases, there is a clear case for mercy. The man had clear mental health issues the Army knew about but chose to ignore. There is shared responsibility for his crime.”
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