At least eight former service members and Blackwater security guards convicted of war crimes have filed petitions seeking pardons or clemency from President Donald Trump, including a former Army staff sergeant who pleaded guilty to killing 16 Afghan men, women and children.
Getting action from Trump in the case of former Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was "admittedly a long shot," but "we'd be remiss if we didn't try," his lawyer John Maher, a former military Judge Advocate General, told Military.com Thursday.
Bales, now 45, pleaded guilty in a 2013 general court martial to avoid the death penalty on charges of going off alone at night from his base in Afghanistan's Kandahar province in 2012 to kill three Afghan men, four women and nine children, including a 2 year old.
Bales then set fire to the bodies, according to his guilty plea.
He has been serving a life term without eligibility for parole in the maximum security section of the military's Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The killings, believed to be the worst atrocity carried out by a single American soldier in the Afghan war, triggered widespread demonstrations against the U.S. military presence.
Maher said Bales had had an exemplary record in three previous combat tours in Iraq prior to the incident and "then he goes out and kills 16 people. No one ever determined whether he was in his right mind."
Bales had been taking the antimalarial drug mefloquine, which can have adverse psychiatric effects, leading to violence in some patients, according to Maher.
Bales' use of mefloquine was not presented at court-martial to determine whether he had the mental capacity to enter a guilty plea, Maher said.
At his sentencing hearing, Bales also said he had been taking the steroid stanozolol to get "huge and jacked," and then added that, "There's not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did."
Although a pardon for Bales is likely out of the question, Maher said he was asking that Trump consider commuting the sentence to 20 years, or ordering a new trial.
In a Dec. 2 petition to Trump filed with the Justice Department's pardon attorney, Maher asked that the president to "disapprove the findings and the sentence in this court-martial, or grant a full and unconditional pardon, or commute the present sentence to 20 years confinement" at Fort Leavenworth.
The filing included a personal plea to Trump from Bales, in which he cited previous pardons granted by the president to Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and Maj. Matt Golsteyn. Lorance was convicted of second-degree murder after he was found to have ordered platoon members to fire on Afghan men on motorcycles in 2012, resulting in the deaths of two. Golsteyn had been facing court-martial over his killing of a suspected Afghan bomb-maker in 2010.
Bales also cited the case of former SEAL Master Chief Eddie Gallagher, whose demotion was reversed by Trump after he had been acquitted at a court martial of killing a prisoner.
"All these men committed violations of the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] and most of these men spent less time on the ground in hostile fire areas than I, they all outranked me, and all made more money than I," Bales said.
He asked that Trump afford him "the same level of clemency that has already been shown to others."
"Please let me return home to be a husband and a father. Without your involvement, I may never be able to go home," Bales said.
Maher has the support of the United American Patriot advocacy group and the Justice for Warriors Congressional Caucus, led by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.
Among other cases the lawyer is handling, the "most promising" for Trump's possible action, he said, was that of four former Blackwater Worldwide security guards, convicted in federal district court in Washington, D.C., in 2014 of various counts of murder, manslaughter and weapons charges in the 2007 killings in Baghdad's Nisour Square of 17 Iraqis. All four men had military backgrounds.
The defendants claimed that they opened fire in response to an ambush, but U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen said in a statement that the guilty verdicts were " a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war."
Maher said the defendants -- Paul A. Slough, Dustin L. Heard, Nicholas A. Slatten and Evan S. Liberty -- were the victims of prosecutorial misconduct and political pressure from the Obama administration.
Several sources, Maher said, told him that the arguments for pardon in the Blackwater case had been made known to Trump and "the president's view of that is very friendly."
Speculation that Trump would issue a rash of pardons before leaving office was triggered by his Nov. 25 pardon of retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser.
Flynn pleaded guilty twice to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian diplomat, but with a new defense team he sought to retract his guilty plea. In May, the Justice Department asked to drop the case, but the request was blocked by federal district court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan.
Trump's pardon made the arguments for and against proceeding in the Flynn case moot.
The White House has been silent on whether Trump would issue more pardons before leaving office but several news outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, have reported that Trump is considering more pardons, including a possible preemptive pardon for himself.
However, the petitions for pardon, clemency or commutation of sentences for other former members of the military have largely gone unnoticed.
Lorance had served six years of a 19-year sentence when Trump issued his pardon in 2019. He is now petitioning to clear his record of the conviction, Maher said.
Lorance was attending law school and the record of conviction would likely block him from ever being admitted to the bar, Maher said.
In an October interview with Military.com, Lorance said that if admitted to practice law, he would seek to reform the UCMJ.
Maher, backed by United American Patriots, has also filed a petition for pardon for former Army 1st Sgt. John Hatley, who was released on parole in October from Fort Leavenworth after serving 11 years on what initially had been a life sentence.
Hatley had been convicted at court-martial of participating in the premeditated murders of four Iraqi prisoners in 2007.
Maher has also filed for pardon or commutation of sentence for former Army Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the alleged ringleader of a self-styled "kill team" who was convicted of participating in the murders of at least three Afghans in 2009 and 2010. The group also allegedly took body parts as trophies.
In January 2020, Gibbs filed suit in federal court seeking to have the conviction overturned, claiming that his original defense lawyer failed to present testimony disputing his role in the killings.
Gibbs has been serving a life sentence at Fort Leavenworth.
According to a November report by the Pew Research Center, Trump has issued far fewer pardons or sentence commutations than any of his recent predecessors.
Citing Justice Department data, the Pew report said that by mid-November Trump had granted 28 pardons and 16 commutations, the lowest total of any president since William Mckinley, who served from 1897 until his assassination in 1901.
By contrast, former President Barack Obama granted 212 pardons and 1,715 commutations in his eight years in office, the Pew report said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.