Supporters of a former first lieutenant convicted of murder in the 2012 deaths of two Afghan men now await a response from the White House after a petition calling for his pardon gained 100,000 signatures.
Clint Lorance's supporters launched the White House petition Jan. 2, after the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division upheld the guilty verdict in the case.
The petition needed 100,000 signatures by Feb. 1 to get a response from the White House. The petition reached that threshold Monday night; it had 101,273 signatures late Monday.
In the petition, supporters call for a presidential pardon for Lorance, saying the former lieutenant was punished for trying to protect his soldiers.
"The president has the chance to tell the military and our enemies that when we send our young sons and daughters into harm's way, we do not turn against them," the petition states.
White House "We the People" petitions are designed to allow individuals to petition the administration to take action on a range of issues. However, responses to petitions that gain the required signatures are not legally binding.
In addition, to avoid the appearance of improper influence, the White House may, in some cases, decline to address certain procurement, law enforcement or legal matters that fall within the jurisdiction of federal departments or agencies, federal courts, or state and local government, according to the White House website.
It's unknown how, or if, the White House will respond to the Lorance petition.
Lorance's case has been controversial from the start, with his supporters believing he was punished for doing his job and trying to protect his men.
But his men, in testimony during Lorance's court-martial and in interviews with Army Times, criticized the former lieutenant's actions in Afghanistan, saying he was ignorant and overzealous despite his unfamiliarity with the unit's area of operations.
Lorance, 30, was convicted of two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder in the July 2012 incident in southern Afghanistan. He also was convicted of threatening a local Afghan; firing an M14 rifle into a village and trying to have one of his soldiers lie about receiving incoming fire; and obstructing justice by making a false radio report after the two men on the motorcycle were killed.
He was sentenced to 20 years of confinement at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
In response to a petition for clemency, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division reduced Lorance's prison sentence by one year but upheld the guilty verdict.
Lorance, who served as an enlisted soldier before earning his commission in 2010, deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 with 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division of Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
"Maj. Gen. Richard Clarke carefully reviewed the facts of US v. Lorance, to include the clemency requests submitted in August, October, November and December 2014," said Maj. Crystal Boring, a spokeswoman for the XVIII Airborne Corps, in a statement. "After an in-depth study of the case, he upheld the guilty verdict from the court martial panel and directed one year off the original sentence of 20 years confinement due to post-trial delay. The case is now being forwarded to the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals."
Lorance's defense attorney, John Maher, said his client did not receive a fair trial.
"The defense has now identified information linking five of seven Afghan military-aged males on the field that day with terror," he said. "Because the government has always had that information and did not disclose it to the command or the trial defense counsel, examining 1st Lt. Lorance's decision-making takes a back seat. We never get to that question."
Basically, the government is obligated to disclose evidence that could negate guilt, reduce the degree of guilt or reduce the punishment for the accused, Maher said, citing the Rule for Courts-Martial.
"The first day at the Army JAG school, we're taught you turn over everything," said Maher, who also is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.
The government made a "serious legal error" by not turning over exonerating and/or mitigating evidence contained in government computer databases, Maher said.
If that information had been turned over, the defense might have taken a different approach, or the case may not even have made it to trial, said Maher, who points out Lorance never fired his weapon that day.
Since then, three members of Congress have weighed in, calling for the Army to further review the case against Lorance.
"Too often, cases involving rules of engagement present difficulty, Reps. Duncan Hunter, Ryan Zinke and Matt Salmon wrote in a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh. "The warfighter doesn't always have the benefit of time, given lives are always at risk in a warzone."
The letter goes on: "While the rules of engagement are in place for a reason and serve a critical purpose, any case that projects an alleged violation of the rules of engagement deserves a high level of attention and scrutiny. It is our belief, based on information brought to our attention, that Lorance's case requires further review."
Hunter, who is a Marine combat veteran, Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, and Salmon said they are "not taking the position that the military justice system has failed Lorance, especially with the understanding that his case is still under appeal."
However, "information brought to our attention raises the prospect that investigators and Lorance's command are in possession of information that could validate the assertion that the deceased Afghans were enemy fighters and responsible for the emplacement of improvised explosive devices," the congressmen wrote.
They added that they "recognize there is a process in place" for requesting documentation relevant to cases under legal consideration.
"We sincerely hope that as Lorance's appeal is heard, the proper documentations are made with reliance on the full scope of evidence regarding Lorance's actions," they wrote. "Further, should the outcome not change, we ask for your immediate commitment to allow us to view specific (and possibly overlooked) evidence."