The sentencing of Sergeant Alexander Blackman, the Royal Marine convicted of killing an injured Taliban fighter in , has been delayed by the court martial appeal court until next Tuesday.
The 42-year-old soldier, who remains in custody after his , was described in mitigation pleadings made on Friday as “the last casualty of a failed war”.
Addressing the five senior judges considering the case, Jonathan Goldberg QC said: “The incarceration of almost three and a half years which he has already served is already too much for his crime … At the forefront of our submission is the plea that he should be released today.”
The lawyer said Blackman “still has so much good in him to give to the community – possibly even the Royal Marines community because there are many jobs that would not put him on the frontline of battle”.
A sentence of three to five years, the barrister suggested, would allow his immediate release on the basis of time already served.
Goldberg told the judges: “I invite you in today’s unique case to send a message to the young people who need to join the armed forces – particularly the Royal Marines – the comrades of this particular Royal Marine, those who serve, their wives … The message should be that the court is capable of extending exceptional mercy and understanding in this unique case.”
Blackman, he said, was “truly the last casualty of a failed war”.
“We have turned the page on that chapter as a nation,” he added. “What good will it do to keep him – the last casualty – in prison?”
Goldberg read out admiring references given by a senior officer and a marine who had served in Blackman’s unit. Both said his behaviour on that day was entirely out of character with his normal behaviour.
Blackman had been exposed to stress in “one of the most dangerous square miles on Earth”, Goldberg said. He had been carrying out patrols for up to 12 hours a day in heat touching 50C and carrying 45kg (100lbs) of equipment.
The Royal Marines “knew each step could be their last with the danger of loss of lower limbs and genitalia from IEDs [improvised explosive devices]”.
“Not much has changed in that primitive country of Afghanistan,” Goldberg added, quoting from Rudyard Kipling’s 1895 poem The Young British Soldier: “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,/And the women come out to cut up what remains,/Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains/An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”
Blackman’s wife, Claire, went into the witness box to speak on her husband’s behalf.
Asked by Goldberg what she thought was the greatest punishment for him, she said: “The arrest and conviction were a huge shock, but I think it was the dismissal with disgrace which was the hardest aspect of the whole episode to bear.”
Blackman had been serving life for murdering the wounded man in Helmand in 2011 but earlier this month his conviction was quashed and replaced with one of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
Five of the UK’s leading judges ruled that Blackman, 42, from Somerset, had a mental health issue called adjustment disorder at the time of the killing.
Blackman appeared via video link from prison in Wiltshire on Friday prepared to hear his new sentence being passed, but the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said the decision was being postponed until Tuesday to allow the judges more time to consider documents they had received.
In 2013, Blackman became the first member of the British armed forces in recent history to be convicted of murder while on an overseas tour.
A trial at the military court centre in Bulford, Wiltshire, was told that a patrol led by Blackman was given the job of assessing a Taliban fighter who had been badly injured by Apache helicopter fire in Helmand province.
The patrol disarmed him and dragged him roughly to the edge of a 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 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.”
The incident was captured on a head camera worn by one of the men and the footage was found by chance a year later by military investigators.
Blackman’s defence at trial was that he believed the man was dead and he was firing into a corpse, but in sentencing him, the judge, Jeff Blackett, said the prisoner had been “executed”. Blackman was jailed for life and dismissed with disgrace from the military and was due to remain in prison until 2021 before he could be considered for parole.
The 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 appeal court ruled that Blackman had been “an exemplary soldier” before his deployment to Afghanistan but had “suffered from quite exceptional stressors” in Helmand. They found that his ability to form a rational judgment was “substantially impaired”.
“There can be little doubt that … the appellant was angry and vengeful and had a considerable degree of hatred for the wounded insurgent,” they said. “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.”
Blackman has served almost three and a half years in civilian prisons, the equivalent of a seven-year term in terms of parole eligibility. He has been doing an Open University degree in prison. He also helps organise sports events, counsels fellow inmates and teaches maths. When there was a disturbance at a prison he helped to quell it.
A source close to the campaign said Blackman had had job offers and was also considering writing a book about his experiences.
There are concerns, however, that he could become a terrorist target and the same source said the special security measures already in place for his wife would be increased when he was freed.
Forsyth, one of the most vociferous campaigners for Blackman, is .
Col Oliver Lee, who became Blackman’s commanding officer days before the killing, severely criticised the way he was handled by his superiors during the tour.
Lee, who resigned his commission over the case, said his seniors ignored him when he raised concerns. Later, when details of the killing emerged, he claimed, the marine top brass tried to suppress the truth.
In a witness statement seen by the Guardian, Lee said British marines who fought alongside Blackman were , abusing Afghan citizens, treating local allies with contempt and showing little regard for the rules of engagement.
He said it was wrong to treat Blackman as a “single rotten apple”, claiming some marines operating in Helmand in 2011 were guilty of dehumanising the enemy, a state of mind that in the past had led to atrocities such as the Mỹ Lai massacre in Vietnam, and had been too aggressive when they were supposed to be “winning hearts and minds”.