U.S. Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance had been in charge of his platoon for five days when, on July 2, 2012, he accompanied them on a routine, Afghan-led patrol in Kandahar Province. Not long after they left the base, the soldiers were approached by three men on motorcycles. Lorance ordered his men to open fire, leaving two of them dead. They were civilians.
According to an account posted online by his family, Lorance had good reason to give the order. His predecessor as platoon leader had just been wounded in a bombing, and the Taliban was known to be extremely active in the area. He'd also learned from the helicopters overhead that there were enemy combatants in the area whose description matched those of the men on the motorcycle.
The Army, which court-martialed Lorance, painted a different picture, arguing that he had ordered the murder of unarmed men who posed no threat, in violation of the military's rules of engagement. This, prosecutors argued, was of a piece with Lorance's character. The Washington Post relates one incident described in the charging documents in which he threatened the Afghan man who owned the property next to his base, warning that "if there is enemy activity on your land, we will shoot and kill you, your family and your kid."
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The Fayetteville Observer describes the testimony of two of Lorance's soldiers, who took the stand at his trial this week
Pfc. James Skelton said he spotted the motorcycle and told Lorance what he saw. Skelton said he didn't see any weapons on the men or any other signs they were hostile. Lorance didn't ask him for any more information about the men before ordering Skelton to shoot them. Skelton fired two rounds that missed.
"There was not a reason to shoot at that time," Skelton said.
Pvt. David Shilo, who was manning a machine gun in the turret of a gun truck supporting the patrol, said he saw the men stop and get off the motorcycle after the first shots were fired. Soon after, he said, Lorance called over the radio and ordered him to shoot them. That was the only reason he opened fire, Shilo said.
"I was given a lawful order," said Shilo, whose machine gun fire killed two of the Afghans. "My life wasn't threatened at the time."
Skelton said he would normally be the soldier in the platoon to search the bodies and scene after any deaths. But Lorance had two other soldiers search the men and later told superiors the unit hadn't had time to search them before family members retrieved the bodies, Skelton and others testified. Skelton said Lorance directed another soldier about what to tell superiors so there wouldn't be an investigation because Lorance worked in the brigade's tactical operations center before taking command of the platoon.
The soldiers who searched the Afghan bodies said they found an ID card, three cucumbers, pens, scissors, a flashlight and other small personal items, but no weapons, radios or cellphones.
Lorance's mother, who lives near the Collin County hamlet of Farmersville, has pushed back strongly against this official narrative, proclaiming her son's innocence and blasting the military for prosecuting a decorated soldier for protecting his men. Her grassroots PR campaign won some sympathy for her son's cause.
That wasn't enough, however, to sway the jury at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, which convicted him yesterday of two counts of murder and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. The sentence brings with it Lorance's dismissal from the Army where, according to his family, he planned to serve for another decade.