A historic murder conviction against a British marine who shot dead a seriously wounded Taliban prisoner in Afghanistan has been quashed and replaced with one of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
Alexander Blackman became the first member of the UK armed forces in recent history to be convicted of murder while on an overseas tour and has been serving a life sentence in a civilian prison since 2013.
Blackman, who was not at the Royal Courts of Justice to hear the decision, remains in prison for the moment but will be re-sentenced within the next couple of weeks and at that point could be released.
Outside court Blackman’s wife, Claire, who has led the campaign to free the former sergeant, said she was delighted by the result saying it “much better reflected the circumstances that [her] husband found himself in during that terrible tour of Afghanistan”.
Emerging on to the steps of the courts to applause from a crowd of veterans – including three cheers for her – and the honking of taxi horns, she said: “We must now hope to secure a significant reduction in the sentence.”
She thanked her husband’s “fantastic” legal team and the “tens of thousands of supporters, especially from the Royal Marine family, who have stood behind us throughout and played such an important role in getting us to this point”.
The appeal was heard by some of the country’s most senior judges including Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the lord chief justice, and Sir Brian Leveson, president of the Queen’s bench division.
In Wednesday’s ruling, the appeal court judges said Blackman had been “an exemplary soldier before his deployment to Afghanistan in March 2011”.
They ruled: “The appellant suffered from quite exceptional stressors … during the time of that deployment which increasingly impacted on him the longer he was in command at CP [command post] Omar.”
The judges said it was “clear that a consequence was that he had developed a hatred for the Taliban and a desire for revenge”. At the time of the killing “the patrol remained under threat from other insurgents”.
The judges said: “Given his prior exemplary conduct, we have concluded that it was the combination of the stressors, the other matters to which we have referred and his adjustment disorder that substantially impaired his ability to form a rational judgment.”
The judges said: “There can be little doubt that on 15 September 2011 the appellant was angry and vengeful and had a considerable degree of hatred for the wounded insurgent. On prior deployments, similar emotions had been controlled by him.
“The appellant’s decision to kill was probably impulsive and the adjustment disorder had led to an abnormality of mental functioning that substantially impaired his ability to exercise self-control.”
A trial at the military court centre in Bulford, Wiltshire, was told that a patrol led by Blackman was tasked with assessing a Taliban fighter badly injured by Apache helicopter cannon fire. The insurgent’s assault rifle lay within his reach and there was a grenade in his pocket, but the marines disarmed him professionally.
The court heard how the prisoner was then dragged roughly to the edge of the field. He was sworn at and mocked before being dumped on a pile of chaff.
Once the Apache had gone and the marines had made sure they were out of sight of a British observation balloon, Blackman leaned in and shot the helpless man in the chest.
As the insurgent’s body twitched, Blackman told him: “There you are, shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt. It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.” Moments later, he told colleagues: “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere fellas. I’ve just broken the Geneva convention.”
While the patrol kept quiet, the incident in September 2011 had been captured on a head camera worn by one of the men, referred to as Marine B. A year later the video was found by chance by military investigators and an inquiry began.
The trial judge, Jeff Blackett, said the prisoner had been “executed” and told Blackman: “In one moment you undermined much of the good work done day in and day out by British forces and potentially increased the risk of revenge attacks against your fellow service personnel.”
Blackman was jailed for life and told he would spend at least 10 years in prison, a tariff later reduced to eight. He was also dismissed with disgrace.
After that ruling, the Daily Mail launched a “campaign for justice” for Blackman, portraying him as a brave, loyal marine who had been working in the most challenging conditions with little supervision or backup from his superiors. Mail readers donated £800,000 to a legal fund administered by the author Frederick Forsyth, Maj Gen John Holmes, the former head of UK special forces, and the composer Sir Tim Rice.
A new legal team put fresh evidence and arguments before the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which referred the case back to the court martial appeal court, on the grounds that new details relating to Blackman’s mental state at the time were available and because an alternative verdict of manslaughter had not been presented to the court martial board when it originally considered the case.
The judges said that if the expert evidence of the psychiatrists, and other evidence, had been before the court martial, “we are in no doubt but that the defence of diminished responsibility would have had to have been left to the board and that it could have affected their decision to convict”.
They said: “It matters not for this purpose that the evidence as to conditions in Afghanistan is disputed by the prosecution. That evidence plainly had sufficient force and credibility (even if disputed) together with the psychiatric evidence to form the basis of a case that the defence of diminished responsibility … could be advanced.
“Such a case, if it had been advanced before the board could have raised a doubt as to guilt in the minds of the board. As a result, the verdict is unsafe and the conviction for murder must be quashed.”
The judges said they wished to “make it clear” that the court could see “no basis for any criticism of the conduct of the court martial by the judge advocate general”, who “left the issues which had been raised by the prosecution and the defence during the hearing of the court martial to the board in an entirely fair and proper manner”.
During the appeal, Blackman’s team, led by Jonathan Goldberg QC, said the marine had adjustment disorder, a mental illness. At the time of the offence, they argued, he had reached the point where he did not – or could not – care. He was burnt out and his moral compass was affected.
Neil Greenberg, a psychiatrist, told the court that everybody had their “breaking point”. “There is no such thing as a Rambo type, an Arnold Schwarzenegger soldier, who can face all sorts of stresses and appear to be invulnerable,” he said. “That sort of person only exists in the cinema.”
Blackman and his colleagues were in Helmand as part of Operation Herrick 14, which ran from March to October 2011, to help build schools, hospitals and roads and train Afghan forces. But they also had to cope with a determined and motivated enemy and they lost close friends. One man lost a leg in a roadside bomb. It was hung by the Taliban from a tree as a trophy. The troops said they feared that if they were captured they would be skinned alive or beheaded.
Blackman was in charge of command post Omar, a tiny roofless compound with no lock on the back gate. His commanding officer visited twice at most during the six months he was there.
By September, partly because of the number of injuries, the men under Blackman’s command had only one day of rest every two or three weeks. Blackman began to go out on almost every patrol. He was feeling stressed, jaded and paranoid, believing the Taliban were specifically targeting him.
An MoD spokesperson said: “We have fully cooperated with each stage of Sgt Blackman’s case … and will continue to provide personal support to the family, as we have done since charges were first brought. We respect the court’s decision and it would be inappropriate for us to comment further on it.”
Factors taken into account by the judges included:
- Blackman had not received full pre-deployment training; he had to take time out of training because of his father’s death.
- There was powerful evidence that members of the team under Blackman’s command were always on edge and did not feel safe at night.
- CP Omar, where the team was based, was under constant external threat during summer months and difficult to reach safely.
- The team had been hardest hit by the insurgents; they were losing ground and were combat-weary.
- The team at CP Omar was undermanned; the previous team had numbered 25; theteam under the appellant was 16.
- The team was required to patrol between five and 10 hours a day over rough ground in heat that was normally over 50C when carrying a minimum of 100lb of equipment. They should not have done morning and evening patrols, but were sometimes required to do this because of the manpower shortage.
- The men became physically tired, particularly at times of illness or insurgent activity. Blackman was in particular deprived of sleep.
- Ambushes by insurgents and the threat of explosive devices were constant.
- The insurgents had inflicted severe casualties and treated dead bodies callously.
- Blackman regarded himself as responsible for his troops, particularly those with children (the appellant had none); he therefore undertook more patrols and risks to himself so that his troops could all get home safely.
- Blackman regarded himself as easily identifiable and targeted by the insurgents. About a month before the killing two grenades were thrown at the appellant by insurgents while he was talking to Afghan civilians outside the camp. The grenades fell into a nearby drainage ditch which funnelled the blast upwards, saving his life.
- The finding of the wounded Taliban fighter with a grenade may have triggered a memory of a recent attack when grenades were thrown at the patrol.
Judges quash UK marine Alexander Blackman’s murder conviction – The Guardian