OKLAHOMA CITY -- It was an unassuming Monday afternoon when Michael Behenna said he got a call from a number he didn't recognize.
"I thought it was a solicitor or something, so I didn’t answer it. Well, it left a message and after I got off the phone with my dad, I listened to the message," Behenna said. "The message said – 'Lt. Behenna, this is Molly from the White House. President Trump’s office. The president would like to talk to you.'"
Behenna, a former U.S. Army lieutenant, was convicted by a military court in 2009 for killing Iraqi prisoner Ali Mansur who was suspected of being part of al-Qaeda. Behenna was found guilty of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone for shooting Mansur, while he was questioning him on his own. At the time, Mansur had been released due to a lack of evidence tying him to an explosion that killed members of a platoon under Behennna's command.
According to reports, Mansur was naked when he was shot. Behenna said he acted in self-defense after the prisoner tried to take his weapon. He was initially sentenced to 25 years and was released on parole in 2014 when he returned home to Oklahoma.
"When I came home, I just wanted to be left alone and wanted family close. I think that’s a result of where I came from," he said. "The prosecutors never put on any forensic experts. They never proved their theory during trial. Their own forensic expert is the guy who supported me and what I said happened. This is part of the 'prosecutal' misconduct. They sent their own forensic expert home. Their theory was Mansur was shot in the head in the first and then shot in the body. They never explained how the body shot happened."
Through an executive grant of clemency, President Donald Trump has granted a full pardon to Behenna. Within minutes of that first phone call, Behenna was on the phone with the President himself.
"I couldn’t believe it. I was speechless. I was breathing real heavy. My heart was beating real fast," he replied. "He says, 'Michael? This is President Trump.' At this time, I had tears in my eyes. My heart’s beating fast, and I’m smiling from ear to ear."
A press release from the White House notes Behenna was a "model prisoner" and "entirely deserving of this Grant of Executive Clemency".
The pardon does not come without some pushback. The ACLU's national headquarters called it a "presidential endorsement of a murder that violated the military's own code of justice."
However, those who have rallied behind Behenna for more than a decade point to the dozens of admirals and generals who support the move. His case has also been taken up by several high-ranking politicians including former Gov. Mary Fallin and current Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter.
"In addition to that, there are thousands of just everyday Americans who have supported our family and Michael over this 10-year process. We are so grateful for them. They didn’t have a dog in this hunt," said his mother, former federal prosecutor Vicki Behenna. "Michael was serving his country in a combat zone at the time this incident occurred. We believe that a pardon is a grant of mercy and grace and forgiveness, which I think Oklahoma is about."
For Behenna, who now lives in Guthrie, Oklahoma, the pardon means a clean slate and a second chance.
"There were restrictions when you’re on parole, such as…you have to register as a violent offender in the county that you live in every year. Every time you want to travel outside the western district of Oklahoma, you have to put in a travel form. Then you have to get permission, not only from your parole officer but the place that you want to go," he explained. "There are monthly supervision reports that I had to do. I mean, I couldn’t vote. Now I can."
Because Behenna was an army officer, he received a "dismissal" from service. We're told that it is equivalent to a dishonorable discharge. However, the family said they are working on trying to change that status to an honorable discharge.