The legal team representing a former platoon leader convicted in the slaying of unarmed Afghan motorcyclists sent a letter to the defense secretary Wednesday, amid reports that he plans to ask the president not to intervene in the soldier’s 19-year murder sentence.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper was reportedly planning to urge President Donald J. Trump not to pardon Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, as well as an Army Green Beret accused of murdering an alleged Taliban bombmaker, as a Veterans Day gesture.
The letter was provided to Army Times by John N. Maher, one of Lorance’s attorneys. In it, the legal team asks Esper to accurately represent their client, whom the attorneys say has been unfairly smeared by senior Army leaders in the past, including being referred to as a “bad apple,” while echoing long-dismissed charges against their client.
“This was the theory the prosecution told the jury; it was the theory endorsed by the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, and was the narrative parroted by senior Army officials in public and to at least one member of Congress,” the letter reads.
“The facts uncovered since 1LT Lorance’s trial indicate that those he was convicted of killing or wounding were, in fact, enemy combatants – and lawful targets,” the attorneys wrote. “Stated more simply, the evidence that now exists establishes that during the engagement in July 2012, 1LT Lorance killed the enemy, and protect his troops, which is precisely what this nation sent him to do.”
Evidence submitted as part of an appeal in 2017 argued that Lorance, who was sentenced four years prior, had given the order to a subordinate to fire on Afghan motorcyclists who were connected to insurgent activity. Biometric evidence showed that at least one of the men on the motorcycle was linked to an improvised explosive device incident prior to the shootings, according to the appeal.
A second slain rider knew someone who was linked to hostile action against U.S. forces. And a third individual who fled the scene was also allegedly involved in an insurgent attack after he was wounded, the appeal stated.
Regardless, the appeal was ultimately denied by Army judges, who wrote in their opinion that Lorance knew none of that information and the victims posed no threat at the time.
Lorance’s attorneys are concerned, however, that those facts won’t be included in any conversation Esper may have with the president.
The lawyers stated in their letter that the president should know that during Lorance’s trial, Army prosecutors did not provide to the defense team the biometric evidence, such as fingerprints and DNA, linking one of the Afghan men to an IED.
Army prosecutors also did not provide to Lorance’s defense team activity reports and overhead aerostat balloon surveillance information issued shortly before the shooting that seemed to indicate that the platoon was being scouted by enemy troops.
Another key bit of evidence against Lorance is the fact that nine members of his platoon testified against him in court, and several spoke to the media, including Army Times, saying in 2015 that Lorance “had a taste for blood and wanted to have that fulfilled," according to one soldier who asked to remain anonymous due to his ongoing service.
“Us testifying against him, it wasn’t a matter of not liking him, it wasn’t a matter of any type of grudge or coercion,” said Todd Fitzgerald, another former infantryman in Lorance’s platoon, who testified during the original court-martial. “It was simply we knew that his actions, based on our experience, having operated in that area for months, were going to breed further insurgency."
Lorance’s attorneys wrote in their letter to Esper that nine members of the platoon Lorance had assumed command over just days before the July 2012 patrol were threatened with murder charges, and granted immunity in exchange for their testimony against the young officer.
Also at issue, is the way in which their client has been portrayed by Army prosecutors and senior leaders in public.
“For example, in a March 2018 public panel discussion regarding the infamous My Lai massacre, Brigadier General (BG) Joseph Berger, who for a time served as the Chief Judge of the Army Court of Criminal Appeals,'addressed 1LT Lorance by name,” the attorneys wrote. “He called 1LT Lorance a ‘bad apple,’ a ‘very aggressive Lieutenant who had his own ideas about how the war in Afghanistan should be being fought.’”
“Berger told the audience that Lorance had changed rules of engagement, despite the fact that 1LT Lorance was acquitted of altering the rules of engagement,” the letter reads. “We bring these comments to your attention with the hope that in your conversation with the President regarding 1LT Lorance’s case, similar misstatements will not be included.”
Esper has thus far stated that he will not comment on what conversations he has had, or will have, with the president regarding the potential pardons.
“As you know, I’m in the chain of command and I’m very conscious of my remarks," Esper told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday. "But I do have full confidence in the military justice system and we’ll let things play out as they play out.”
Esper did meet with Trump on Tuesday and had a “robust” conversation about the proposed pardons.
“I offered ― as I do in all matters ― the facts, the options, my advice, the recommendations and we’ll see how things play out,” he said.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.