After being confined in the Fort Leavenworth military prison for eight years, Sergeant Derrick Miller is out on parole and trying to put his life back together.
In July 2011, Sgt. Miller was convicted of premeditated murder for the death of an Afghan during his third deployment with the U.S. National Guard. But the circumstances that led Sgt. Miller to join the military and got him to this point, are a story in and of themselves.
"Initially, I had been working in construction for probably about six or seven years. I'd been doing carpentry and had my own crew. We were installing kitchens, and I got laid off," Sgt. Miller told Townhall.
The layoff was unexpected, and Sgt. Miller had to think about how he was going to provide for his wife and two children.
"I wanted to join the military at that point,” he said. “I said, 'Look, I'm passionate about my country. I'm passionate about my family. And what better way to put those two things together than join the military.' And once I did, I fell in love.”
Once joining the U.S. National Guard, Sgt. Miller went on three deployments in four years, volunteering for two of them.
"I was very, very involved in the military culture and really just being passionate about protecting the Constitution. Becoming a soldier was probably the most natural [feeling] job that I had," he said with a smile.
But on his third and final deployment, Sgt. Miller's life took a drastic change. While in Afghanistan, he identified an enemy combatant, a Taliban scout dressed as a civilian, that had slipped past American defenses. Pulling the man aside, Sgt. Miller began to interrogate him. During questioning, the enemy combatant lunged for his weapon in an attempt to disarm him. Acting in what most would consider self-defense, Sgt. Miller killed the man.
While two witnesses present acknowledged all of this in their initial written testimonies, the stress and pressure from the investigators and prosecution caused them to flip. One of the witnesses, an interpreter, was told that he would not be able to become an American citizen unless he changed his testimony. The other was told that he would be identified as an accomplice.
Ultimately, Sgt. Miller was court-martialed, charged with the premeditated murder of an Afghan, convicted by a jury, and sentenced to life in prison.
Injustice in the Military Justice System
Though Sgt. Miller is out on parole, he’s not done fighting yet. He's seeking a presidential pardon and voicing his concerns about the Military Justice System, telling Townhall that there are "serious issues and serious concerns, constitutionally, that should be addressed.”
One of those concerns is how a jury reaches its verdict. For a defendant to receive a not guilty verdict in the Military Justice System, more than one-third of jurors must side with the defendant, in contrast to one member of a jury in a federal civilian trial. This difference, Sgt. Miller says, results in a near-perfect conviction rate for service members that are court-martialed.
"It's a huge difference and translates into a 98 percent conviction rate in the military," Sgt. Miller explained. "That issue alone, you're putting many people in prison who'd be walking the streets and free on a normal civilian trial."
Another issue with the military court system, according to Sgt. Miller, is the jury selection process. As he detailed, the command group which a service member falls under, which also pushes for the trial itself, "gets to select the members or dismiss the members of your panel, at will."
"Before I went to trial, there were at least 20 members of my panel who were switched out," he recalled.
Like in a civilian trial, through voir dire, the defense still "gets a chance to ask the court-martial members questions to ensure that members are impartial."
Exactly who is selected can be even more frustrating. Members in the military with "medical, administrative, and clerical jobs" can be chosen. While Sgt. Miller agrees these jobs are necessary for the military, he says it's hard for these men and women "to understand and relate to all the experiences that [people] go through in a combat shooting situation."
The appeals process in the Military Justice System presents challenges, as well. While service members can appeal to the Supreme Court, "the Supreme Court may not review a decision by the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces which had refused to grant a petition for review."
"Those three issues alone should give every American pause," he stated.
When asked about his trial process and experience, Sgt. Miller described it as "a rush."
"All these emotions are swirling around in your head, and you have to plan," he explained.
For service members accused of war crimes, the price tag for a good legal defense is astronomical, and for a single-income military family, ruining.
"In general, you're talking about $20,000 for a good attorney," Sgt. Miller told Townhall. Adding, "If you get assigned a military trial defense, chances are you're going to go to prison."
Sadly, some military families are forced to empty their savings and even seek financial support from extended family to pay legal fees. Due to the financial cost, a service member is often left wondering what will happen to their family if they're found guilty.
"What are your kids going to do? What happens to your house? What happens to the cars? Where [does your family] go?" Sgt. Miller asked.
Not only do service members facing court-martial suffer financial woes, but they also have to deal with public scrutiny before their trial even begins.
"From my standpoint, your country has turned an eye on you. Now the reticle is pointed squarely at you, and you have to be the one to figure out the answers to all these questions while you're being court-martialed," Sgt. Miller explained.
Though Sgt. Miller was convicted and spent nearly a decade in prison, there were those on the outside who believed in his innocence and believed he needed to have his criminal record expunged due to an unjust trial and conviction.
That’s when United American Patriots stepped in.
Fourteen years ago, retired Marine Corps Major Bill Donahue, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star and multiple Purple Hearts during his service, founded the non-profit organization United American Patriots (UAP). The idea for the organization was born after Major Donahue saw images of six U.S. Marines in shackles after being accused of killing Iraqi citizens in the city of Haditha. He also heard the late Congressman John Murtha (D-Pa.) refer to the Marines as murderers and presume their guilt before ever having gone to trial. At that moment, Major Donahue knew he wanted to ensure those who risk their lives to protect the U.S. receive a fair trial if wrongly accused.
“He just said this wasn’t right,” retired Marine and United American Patriots CEO David Gurfein told Townhall. “Ever since that point, UAP has existed to raise awareness of the cases and warriors who are being wrongfully accused and unjustly convicted and provide financial support for their legal defense and help with reintegration once they are released.”
Over the years, UAP has worked on dozens of cases, with more than 20 currently ongoing. According to Gurfein, since World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, the number of court-martials have increased exponentially. When asked about the significant increase, Gurfein explained it’s due to the Uniform Code of Military Justice evolving.
“The Uniformed Code of Military Justice was established to maintain good order and discipline,” Gurfein said. “But as with everything, as things progress, you end up having more of a professional corps, if you will.”
As Gurfein detailed, military attorneys, who have never served in combat, earn promotions based on the number of cases they take on.
“Sometimes [the attorneys] come out of law school, they go to a few weeks of how to wear the uniform of being a part of the military, they’ve never served in combat, and all of a sudden, they’re being promoted based upon how many cases they rack up,” Gurfein explained.
But it’s not just the attorneys and the desire to take on cases for a promotion that is contributing to more court-martials. Gurfein says there’s the blurring of the lines between the rule of law and the laws of war.
“We have a culture that’s much more politically correct,” Gurfein elaborated. “And so, we tend to start holding our warriors accountable for situations that we judge them as if they were happening in the domestic environment.”
Gurfein pointed out the difference between the job of our men and women in uniform overseas to that of law enforcement officers at home, saying that while criminals at home commit crimes and, for the most part, try to avoid law enforcement, Islamic terrorists actively seek out American soldiers to harm and kill them.
“[The military’s] engaging with people who are trying to kill them,” Gurfein stated. “That’s their intent. The enemy on the battlefield, they don’t exist to commit crimes. They exist to destroy the enemy, and they know the more Americans they kill that America will lose support for these warriors and they can ultimately win a war against a numerically and tactically superior enemy combatant.”
Another issue with the Military Justice System, according to Gurfein, is that there is “unbridled prosecutorial misconduct” and a “lack of impartial, objective investigators.”
Often military prosecutors will hide “exculpatory evidence” from the defense and jury, evidence that would result in the exoneration of a court-martialed soldier.
“That’s called prosecutorial misconduct,” Gurfein declared. “And many cases in the Uniform Code of Military Justice have been overturned or thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct.”
The even bigger problem? Prosecutors aren't held accountable.
“There has never been one prosecutor ever held accountable…and because they’re not being held accountable, there’s no downside. There’s a carrot, but there’s no stick, and until we start holding prosecutors accountable, individually, for this misconduct, it will keep going on unabated,” Gurfein explained. “The Uniform Code of Military Justice in and of itself tends to be weighted against the defendant…it’s lopsided,” he added.
Beside the prosecutorial misconduct and legal issues, there’s the problem of public perception. One of the fundamental principles of the United States is a presumption of innocence, and many court-martialed soldiers don’t receive the benefit of the doubt.
“There’s a perception that anyone who is court-martialed, they’re just guilty, and that [the trial] is sort of moving through the motions. That would seem to reinforce the belief that you are guilty or that you will be found guilty,” Gurfein lamented. “Either the prosecution is that good at identifying bad people, or there’s something wrong with a system that has a 98 percent conviction rate.”
To Gurfein, “It’s better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be tortured or incarcerated."
An Apolitical, Bipartisan Issue
Sergeant Miller and UAP are currently seeking support from members of Congress, hoping to draw awareness to Sgt. Miller’s case and earn him a presidential pardon. And they’re getting it.
“We've got a lot of bipartisan Congressional support asking for a pardon, and also some asking that the findings of my case be expunged because there are so many discrepancies in the Military Justice System itself,” Sgt. Miller stated. “They’re hopeful that I can get my life back without having the stigma of being a convicted felon with ‘murderer’ hanging over my head.”
In a statement to Townhall, Congressman Gohmert said:
While I am grateful for the recommendation from the Army Clemency and Parole Board to grant Derrick Miller parole, the charges against him should be vacated. Bureaucratic red-tape, poorly thought out rules of engagement, and military lawyers prioritizing career and advancement have created a Military Justice System that unjustly punishes our military heroes, like Sgt. Miller. He simply did what our military asked him to do, but rather than being honored for his dedication and selfless protection of U.S. military members, he was punished by a broken system.
“The reason we have bipartisan support,” Gurfein stated, “is because this is not a political issue. The issues we’re addressing are purely individual rights.”
“Now, that doesn’t mean the media or others won’t try to make these cases partisan issues because that seems to be what we do in America right now,” Gurfein continued. “But our mission is about supporting a bipartisan issue.”
Gurfein also told Townhall that on June 4th, nine members of Congress, consisting of Republicans and Democrats, showed up to welcome Sgt. Derrick Miller home after his release.
“There’s the intent to try to paint United American Patriots into a box, but the reality is our mission is very apolitical and stands with bipartisan support. It is one of our tenets, one of our foundational principles of the United States, which is individuals' rights. That’s it,” Gurfein said definitively.
Now that he’s out on parole, Sgt. Miller is working to put back together what he lost.
When asked about potential job prospects, Sgt. Miller said he has some opportunities lined up, but added that when any job seeker puts a resume together and a potential employer sees an eight to nine-year gap from his last job, they wonder what happened. And when they see a dishonorable discharge from the military, there are a lot of questions.
“Some employers may not be willing to put their company on the line for one person. And that's understandable, I get that,” Sgt. Miller said.
Despite his past and criminal record, Sgt. Miller wants people to look at him as a person.
“If you want information, I'll sit down with you, talk to you. I’ll let you read anything you want to read. Let me explain it to you,” Sgt. Miller added.
Of course, there are those who may doubt Sgt. Miller’s sincerity. And to the people who say that Sgt. Miller is a murderer and doesn’t deserve to be out of prison, let alone have the chance of receiving a presidential pardon, Sgt. Miller says, “That's absolutely their right. This is America. We're allowed to have our opinions, and I would just ask you to look into the circumstances. Read the documents.”
Right now, Sgt. Miller is pursuing some of his passions and advocating for service members who are still in prison. Though he has potential job opportunities, Sgt. Miller knows a lot of people in his situation may not get that chance.
“My goal is to set precedence for guys who come after that say, ‘Look, we're still good men. We have families. We have goals. We have aspirations. Just let us have an opportunity to prove to you who we really are.’ That's what I'm trying to do,” he explained. “It looks good for me, but there's no guarantee that the next guys who come out will have those same opportunities or guys who came before are going to have those opportunities. I'm really, really, adamant and passionate about making sure that anybody else has that same support.”
When it comes to life, there are always regrets, but for Sgt. Miller, his service isn’t one of them.
“I never regret going to serve because I would serve again,” he said. “I've talked to my platoon sergeant from that same mission, that same unit that I was deployed with, and he believes, and still believes, that had I not acted the way I did on my intuition, that lives would have been lost that day.”
“I would never want to change anything that would result in somebody else not coming home,” he continued.
But when it comes to missing time with his children, he “absolutely” has regrets.
“When I look back at all the time and years lost, my oldest daughter was five when I went away, that time you can't get back. I'm not going to get to see my daughter learn how to ride a bike for the first time, not going to be there to do that first father-daughter dance where she steps on your shoes and you dance around together. I regret missing all of that,” he said.
Though with a smile, he added, “I would've never imagined nine months ago, serving a life sentence, that I'd be sitting in the kitchen with them eating."
For Sgt. Miller to have his criminal record cleared, he needs a presidential pardon. But first, the president needs to hear his story, like that of First Lieutenant Michael Behenna, who also served time in Fort Leavenworth and recently received a presidential pardon.
When asked what he would say to President Trump if the Commander in Chief looked at his case, Sgt. Miller said, “I would say, ‘Thank you.’ There are so many things out there that are going on in the political realm, I'm sure I'm not even a thought in his head. But if he does have an opportunity, thank you, just for even considering me as something that he looks at in the course of his day. So, I'd say thank you.”