By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Another one of five U.S. soldiers accused of killing Afghan civilians in cold blood was freed on Friday from pretrial detention at an Army base after more than a year of confinement.
The release of Private First Class Andrew Holmes, still charged with one count of premeditated murder and other crimes, came weeks after an Army judge reopened fact-finding proceedings and granted a new evidentiary hearing in the case.
Holmes is the youngest of five members of an infantry unit formerly called the 5th Stryker Brigade charged with murder in connection with three Afghan civilian slayings investigators say were staged to look like legitimate combat casualties.
One of the others, Specialist Jeremy Morlock, was sentenced to 24 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to three counts of murder and agreed to testify against his co-defendants.
Another murder co-defendant, Michael Wagnon, was released in April from pretrial confinement, and two others remain in detention -- Adam Winfield and the alleged "kill team" ringleader, Calvin Gibbs.
The presiding officer for Holmes' new evidentiary hearing has issued a recommendation on whether to reduce the charges or dismiss the case, referred in late January for court-martial. But a copy of that report was not immediately available.
Holmes' civilian defense lawyer, Dan Conway, said a trial date of September 19 has been set.
Holmes, who is from Boise, Idaho, remains restricted to Washington state and is required to wear an electronic monitor on his ankle, said Christopher Ophardt, an Army spokesman at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma.
He said Army commanders let Holmes out of detention after deciding "he is no longer a flight risk or will conduct serious misconduct in society." He immediately returned to his unit for administrative duty, Ophardt said.
Family members said in a statement on Friday that Holmes had been incarcerated since returning to duty in Afghanistan from a home leave in May of 2010, and expressed hope that his release from the brig marked a turning point in his favor.
"We are guardedly optimistic that this may also be the first step taken toward a larger, more definitive release from custody and dismissal of charges."
The investigation into the incidents involving Holmes and the four other members of the 5th Stryker Brigade, which began as a probe of hashish use by soldiers, has grown into the most serious prosecution of alleged atrocities by the U.S. military during 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
Holmes faces a single count of murder stemming from the death of a 15-year-old Afghan villager in January 2010.
Both he and Morlock appear in photos published in March showing them, posed separately, crouched over the bloodied, prone corpse of the Afghan youth, holding the boy's head up for the camera by his hair.
Last year at his first Article 32 hearing, roughly equivalent to a grand jury proceeding, Holmes professed his innocence to the presiding officer, declaring, "I want to tell you, soldier to soldier, that I did not commit murder."
At the new Article 32 in May, Holmes' lawyer sought to discredit Morlock as a prosecution witness and suggested photos taken after the killing exonerate his client because wounds on the victim's body appear to have been caused by a weapon other than the one Holmes was carrying that day.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton)