Soldier charged in Afghan death released

AP News
Posted: Apr 22, 2011 7:50 PM
Soldier charged in Afghan death released

One of five soldiers charged with killing Afghan civilians for sport was released from Army custody on Friday and placed on electronic monitoring pending his court-martial.

Spc. Michael Wagnon, 30, of Las Vegas, will be assigned to a different unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, but it remained unclear what his daily duties will be.

He has been in custody for about 11 months, after investigators alleged that he had joined the others in conspiring to kill three Afghan civilians in Kandahar province last year.

"He had tears in his eyes," said his attorney, Colby Vokey. "The first thing he said was, 'I can't wait to spend the night at home with my wife and my kids.'"

One of the soldiers, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, of Wasilla, Alaska, has given statements describing a plot he claimed was led by Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, of Billings, Mont., to murder civilians for fun while on patrol. The claims are some of the most gruesome war-crimes allegations to emerge from the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Morlock claimed that Wagnon joined Gibbs in the second of the three killings in February 2010, but little or no evidence has emerged publicly to corroborate that Wagnon intended to kill a civilian. During that shooting, prosecutors say, Gibbs killed a civilian and planted an AK-47 by his body to make him appear to be a combatant.

Wagnon acknowledged shooting at the victim after he heard gunfire, but said he was simply coming to the aid of a fellow soldier and maintained he knew nothing about any murder plot.

Gibbs insists all of the killings were justified.

An Army investigator who reviewed evidence against Wagnon recommended that murder and conspiracy charges against him be dropped, but officials declined to do so. His court-martial is set for June 13.

Wagnon also faces a charge of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault because he was present when others in his unit, including Gibbs, allegedly fired toward unarmed farmers in a field.

"Today's court decision to release Spc. Wagnon from pretrial confinement reinforces that the judicial process is independent and the military system supports a defendant's right to due process," said an Army statement released by Maj. Kathy Turner. "In order to maintain the integrity of the case and the investigation, we will not speculate further on his case."

Vokey acknowledged that Wagnon's pretrial release was not a comment on his guilt or innocence, but added: "I think it says a great deal. The military judge believes Michael is not going to commit any further misconduct."

Morlock has pleaded guilty, agreed to testify against his co-defendants and has been sentenced to 24 years in prison. The rest _ Gibbs; Spc. Adam Winfield, of Cape Coral, Fla.; and Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes, of Boise, Idaho _ are awaiting trial.