FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — As the family of Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance reeled Friday over his convictions for the deaths of two Afghan nationals, observers said it's rare to see military officers prosecuted for combat-zone killings.
Some said the Lorance case shows why U.S. forces must adhere to strict rules of engagement when deciding whether to fire their weapons.
Lorance, a 28-year-old 82nd Airborne Division officer, was convicted at Fort Bragg on Thursday of murder for ordering soldiers under his command to shoot three Afghans who were riding a motorcycle. Two were killed, the third ran away.
No weapons or equipment that insurgents typically carry, such as two-way radios, were found on the bodies.
The conviction brought to mind the court-martial of an Army lieutenant in 1971 for the My Lai massacre of 1968. U.S. soldiers killed more than 300 residents in a Vietnamese village. The lieutenant was convicted and sentenced to life. He ultimately served several months in prison and several years of house arrest.
Lorance's jury sentenced him to 20 years in prison for the killings, which occurred in July 2012.
"The whole premise of training troops to kill is that they will kill who they ought to kill and they won't kill who they shouldn't kill," said John Pike, director of the Global Security research organization.
"Acting in a manner consistent with the rules of engagement is being a soldier and a Marine," Pike said. "That's the difference between being a soldier and being a pistolero," a bandit or gunfighter for hire.
In addition to murder, the military jury convicted Lorance of threatening to kill local villagers, ordering a soldier to shoot toward villagers to harass them, asking a soldier to file a false report saying that villagers shot at the outpost, and obstruction of justice for efforts to cover up the circumstances of the two homicides.
His civilian lawyer, Guy Womack of Houston, promised a vigorous appeal. He expects it will say there was insufficient evidence for the jurors to convict.
Lorance believed the Afghan men were a threat and "he made a split-second decision in favor of protecting friendly forces," Womack said.
The two soldiers who began shooting on orders from Lorance testified this week that they saw no threats or hostile actions from the men on the motorcycle. Under the rules of engagement in Afghanistan, American forces aren't supposed to shoot unless they see a threat or hostile situation.
The murder conviction surprised Womack and left Lorance stunned, the lawyer said.
On Friday, Lorance's younger brother Cody was still outraged. Cody Lorance thinks the Army never intended to give his brother a fair trial. If it had been a civilian court, "my brother would have been free to walk the streets today, and the charges would have been dropped," he said.
Cody Lorance said one reason the prosecution made no sense to him was that his brother was given an Army Commendation Medal in September, two months after the shooting and during the investigation.
The conviction may affect the decision-making of soldiers in the war zone, said Womack, who was a Marine before he became a lawyer. If they fear prosecution, "they may hesitate to fire and thereby risk the lives of American and other friendly forces," he said.
Some Fort Bragg soldiers interviewed Friday expressed similar concerns.
A 43-year-old soldier, who spoke on the condition of not identifying his name and rank, said Lorance's court-martial and 20-year sentence would "absolutely" have repercussions in the ranks.
"He got a raw deal," the soldier said, "and it's going to have consequences. What do they call that? Soft power. Save face so other countries will respect us."
Another Fort Bragg soldier, a 35-year-old who would give only his first name, William, said the rules of engagement have been restricted recently.
"It makes leaders hesitant to make engagement because they're afraid. 'Will I be prosecuted?' The visibility of this case absolutely has people question could it happen to them."
The soldier, who is not a platoon leader, said the issue had been "forefront in my mind" since he first heard of military leaders being prosecuted for their combat decisions.
"They don't need more stress. Absolutely not," he said. "Being in combat is tough enough without someone second-guessing your decisions."
Pike of Global Security doubted Lorance's conviction would cause soldiers to hesitate to engage the enemy when faced with a threat. At worst, a court-martial would be preferable to getting killed, he said.
"It would be better to be tried by 12 than carried by six," he said.
The military's handling of the Lorance case is key to maintaining good relations with the Afghan people and government, said Heather Barr, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, an independent advocate of human rights. She has worked in Afghanistan since 2007, she said.
"It's certainly a perception by Afghans that there are a lot of unjustified civilian casualties," Barr said. "This is a real public relations problem for the U.S. in Afghanistan."
Air strikes intended to kill insurgents have killed civilians, including women and children, by mistake, she said, leading to friction with the Afghan president. Civilian deaths may be a motive in Afghan soldier attacks on Americans, she said.
The Robert Bales case, in which a soldier in 2012 killed 16 Afghan civilians including children, infuriated the Afghan people, Barr said. He pleaded guilty in June and is awaiting sentencing. Afghans will pay attention to the Lorance conviction, she predicted, once their news media pick it up.
"Afghans will be interested in the outcome of this case," she said. "I think they will feel like that there are other cases similar to this one, perhaps less extreme, but other cases that should have been pursued and haven't been."