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Originally published January 6, 2011 at 2:32 PM | Page modified January 6, 2011 at 3:26 PM

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Investigating officer: Drop murder charge against 1 of 5 Strykers

A report to Joint Base Lewis-McChord commanders recommends that the Army drop a murder charge against Spc. Michael Wagnon, one of five soldiers accused of killing unarmed Afghan civilians while serving in Afghanistan.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A report forwarded to Joint Base Lewis-McChord commanders recommends that the Army drop a murder charge against Spc. Michael Wagnon, one of five soldiers accused of killing unarmed Afghan civilians while serving with the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

In the weeks ahead, the Army leadership at the base will decide whether to accept that recommendation or reject it and continue the prosecution of a murder charge in a general court-martial trial.

Prosecutors allege that Wagnon conspired with other soldiers to murder an Afghan in February 2010, and then helped two other soldiers — Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs and Spc. Jeremy Morlock — carry out the crime. That is one of three murders prosecutors allege were carried out by rogue members of a Stryker infantry platoon during a 2009-10 deployment.

But Maj. Michael Liles, an investigating officer who presided over a November hearing, found no evidence that Wagnon was involved in the conspiracy. He also did not find sufficient evidence that Wagnon was aware of the murder plot when he opened fire on the Afghan man while on patrol.

"Spc. Wagnon's justification in my opinion is that he was coming to the aid of SSG. (Staff Sgt.) Gibbs, whom he believed was in contact with an enemy combatant," Liles wrote in his investigative report.

Liles also recommended that several other charges, including illegal possession of a human skull, be dropped.

But Liles did find sufficient evidence to move ahead with a charge that Wagnon was involved in another incident in spring 2010, conspiracy to open fire on unarmed farmers in a field. The farmers were not injured in the attack, but Wagnon, if convicted of the conspiracy charge, could face a maximum of eight years in prison, according to his defense counsel, Colby Vokey.

Liles is an officer who, under the military justice system, was assigned to review the evidence against Wagnon, preside over the November hearing and make recommendations.

Army commanders at Joint Base Lewis-McChord will decide whether to accept or reject each of Liles' recommendations on specific charges.

"We want to emphasize these are recommendations by the investigating officer," said Maj. Kathleen Turner, an Army public affairs officer. "... These recommendations are not binding or a final decision. As soon as a final decision is reached, we will provide that information to the public."

Wagnon is a father of three children and has been in pretrial confinement since returning from Afghanistan last summer.

Vokey seeks Wagnon's pretrial release.

"This has created an incredible amount of stress and hardship on his family," Vokey said.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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