By Laura L. Myers
TACOMA, Wash (Reuters) - A second of five U.S. soldiers accused of killing Afghan villagers in cold blood pleaded guilty on Thursday to committing murder, saying he made a "bad decision" when he shot a teenage boy he knew was unarmed.
Private Andrew Holmes, 21, who last year professed his innocence, admitted at his court-martial that he knew it was wrong to open fire with his automatic weapon at the boy, despite orders to do so from a higher-ranked GI in his unit.
Holmes said he suspected at the time that the other soldier, Jeremy Morlock, a co-defendant who testified against Holmes after pleading guilty to three counts of premeditated murder, "was up to no good" when he gave the command to fire.
"I looked at the young man in question, and he was like a deer in the headlights," Holmes recalled of the January 2010 encounter near an Afghan village, where Morlock tossed a hand grenade over a wall to simulate an attack on their patrol, then yelled at Holmes to open fire.
Under questioning from the judge during a daylong proceeding at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Holmes said, "When he told me to fire, I should have just taken cover. But instead, I pulled the trigger."
Holmes insisted he had no prior intent to kill the boy, but added, "the reality is that I made a bad decision."
Photographs from the immediate aftermath of the slaying, made public in March of this year, brought into grim relief the most egregious case of atrocities U.S. military personnel are accused of committing during 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
Both Morlock and Holmes appeared in separate pictures showing them crouched over the bloodied corpse of their 15-year-old victim, holding the boy's head up for the camera by his hair.
Holmes was the youngest of five members of an infantry unit, formerly called the 5th Stryker Brigade, to be charged with murder stemming from three civilian slayings investigators said were staged to look like legitimate combat casualties.
Seven other soldiers were charged with various lesser offenses. All but one have received convictions and sentences ranging from demotion or dishonorable discharge to 60 days hard labor and jail sentences of up to nine months.
Some of the men were accused of taking fingers and other body parts from corpses as war trophies. The probe grew out of an investigation of widespread drug abuse by troops.
In addition to Holmes' single count of murder, reduced from the more serious charge of premeditated murder, he pleaded guilty to one count each of possessing a finger bone and to using marijuana. His sentencing was scheduled for Friday.
Morlock was sentenced to 24 years in prison for his part in three killings. Specialist Adam Winfield pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to three years in prison in August.
The only other man charged with all three slayings, accused ringleader Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, faces a court-martial in November. Co-defendant Michael Wagnon, charged with one count of premeditated murder, also still faces court-martial.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)