By Laura L. Myers
TACOMA, Wash (Reuters) - The youngest of five U.S. soldiers accused of killing unarmed Afghan civilians in cold blood was sentenced on Friday to seven years in prison for gunning down a teenage boy whose corpse he posed with as if it were a trophy.
Andrew Holmes pleaded guilty on Thursday to a single count of murder -- reduced in a deal with prosecutors from the more serious charge of premeditated murder -- admitting he made a "bad decision" when he shot the young villager at close range.
"I wish I could tell the father and brothers in Afghanistan I'm sorry," the tearful 21-year-old Army private said quietly on Friday, near the conclusion of his court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. "It's a deed that will never be forgotten. It will live on in my mind until the day I die."
Holmes' demeanor was strikingly different from his first hearing last year, when he vehemently professed his innocence to the presiding officer and declared: "I want to tell you, soldier to soldier, that I did not commit murder."
Holmes still insists he had no prior intent to kill the boy but exercised poor judgment when he obeyed an order from a higher-ranking GI in his unit to shoot the unarmed youth.
The other soldier, Specialist Jeremy Morlock, was sentenced in March to 24 years in prison after his plea to three counts of premeditated murder, including the January 2010 slaying of 15-year-old Gul Mudin near an Afghan village.
Morlock has testified that Holmes was a willing participant when Morlock tossed a hand grenade over a wall near Mudin to simulate an attack, then yelled at Holmes to open fire.
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.
In pictures taken in the aftermath of the killing, both Holmes and Morlock appeared in separate photos showing them crouched over the bloodied corpse of their victim, holding the boy's head up for the camera by his hair.
Major Robert Stelle, a prosecutor, said such behavior dishonored America's war dead and undermined the U.S. war effort.
"That 15-year-old boy -- he is the reason we are in Afghanistan. It's his heart and mind," Stelle said, gesturing to a blow-up picture of what he called the "trophy pose."
"It makes me sick to look at that flag on his shoulder," he said pointing to Holmes in the photo. "It makes me sick."
Holmes, who was 19 at the time of the killing, also pleaded guilty to one count each of possessing a finger bone taken from the boy's body and to using marijuana. He was sentenced to seven years in prison under his plea deal.
He will be given credit for nearly 500 days already served in pretrial detention. His lawyer, Dan Conway, told reporters he hoped Holmes would serve no more than four years. Under the military justice system, defendants can be eligible for parole after serving one-third of their term, he said.
Holmes was the youngest and lowest-ranked of five members from an infantry unit, formerly called the 5th Stryker Brigade, to be charged with murder stemming from three civilian slayings allegedly staged to resemble 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. The probe grew out of an investigation of widespread drug abuse by troops.
The only other man charged with all three slayings by members of the self-styled "kill team," 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.
A third co-defendant, Specialist Adam Winfield, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to three years in prison in August.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)