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Originally published Monday, January 31, 2011 at 7:02 PM

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Lewis-McChord soldier will face trial on murder charge

Spc. Michael Wagnon will face a general court-martial for his alleged role in the murder of an unarmed Afghan in February of 2009. The commander of Joint Base Lewis-McChord rejected an earlier recommendation by an investigative officer that the murder charges be dropped.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Spc. Michael Wagnon will face a general court-martial for his alleged role in the slaying of an unarmed Afghan in February of 2009, according to a statement released Monday by Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

In November, an investigating officer presiding over the pretrial hearing had recommended the murder charge be dropped, according to a copy of that finding obtained by The Seattle Times.

But that recommendation was rejected by the Army commander at the base, Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti.

Instead, he opted to proceed with the murder and conspiracy-to-murder charges, which could result in up to a life sentence for Wagnon.

"It's devastating," said Carrie Wagnon, Wagnon's wife. "We know that the truth has to prevail."

Army officials said Scaparrotti made his decision after reviewing the investigating officer's report as well as two other recommendations by the brigade leadership and a military legal adviser. Army officials did not disclose the contents of those two additional reports, but Colby Vokey, Wagnon's attorney, said they recommended that Wagnon be charged with murder and conspiracy.

Wagnon, 30, is one of five soldiers accused of murder in a war-crimes investigation of the 5th (Stryker) Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which served in Afghanistan for one year beginning in the summer of 2009.

Wagnon allegedly joined with Spc. Jeremy Morlock and Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs to plan and kill an unarmed Afghan man they met while on patrol in a village in southern Afghanistan.

The investigating officer. Maj. Michael Liles, did not find sufficient evidence that Wagnon was aware of the plot when he opened fire on the Afghan man.

"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.

No date has been scheduled for Wagnon's trial. Morlock is likely to be a key figure for the prosecution. In an initial interview with investigators in May, Morlock was asked about Wagnon's involvement. According to the transcript, he responded, "I couldn't tell you, to be honest."

In a second interview, though, Morlock said Wagnon was involved.

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Morlock now is seeking a plea deal in which he would testify against other soldiers in exchange for a sentence reduction.

Vokey, Wagnon's attorney, said his client is not seeking a plea deal because he is innocent of the charges, and denounced the decision to move ahead with a court-martial.

"I think this is an incredible decision that flies in the face of the investigative officers' recommendation, the evidence and common sense," Vokey said.

At the court-martial, Wagnon also will face charges of joining in another shooting attack against unarmed Afghans in a field. The Afghans were reportedly not injured.

But Scaparrotti, in his decision, dropped other charges alleging Wagnon collected human body parts.

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

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