New developments in Army war crimes case

Nov 23, 2010

A pre-trial hearing is scheduled to continue Tuesday morning for one of the five Washington-based Army soldiers charged with war crimes while deployed to Afghanistan. 

Meanwhile, the Army confirms a broader inquiry is underway. As for the criminal cases: they could hinge on photographic evidence. But a legal fight is underway over whether controversial images can be introduced in open court.

Specialist Michael Wagnon, 30, is charged with participating in the premeditated murder of an Afghan civilian in February of this year. He’s also accused of possessing a human skull fragment and asking a fellow soldier to erase incriminating evidence from a hard drive. Wagnon’s attorney is Colby Vokey of Dallas, Texas. He says his client is innocent and adds the Army’s lack of evidence is unacceptable: no crime scene analysis, not even a body.

“What I do know is that when you’re defending a guy like Spc. Wagnon and his life is on the line you want to have the benefit of all of the evidence that can be out there and for a murder investigation of this magnitude to not have this evidence is to me just plain shocking,” said Vokey.

His client is one of five Washington-based soldiers charged in connection with three alleged murders earlier this year. But Army investigators say they were only allowed by higher-ups to visit one of the alleged crime scenes.

Instead, the case is built largely on the statements of fellow soldiers and photographs of the alleged victims. Photographs the Army has gone to great lengths to keep out of the public eye for fear they could trigger an international backlash like the one that followed the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Now the attorney for another of the soldiers is fighting for the release of some of the photos. Dan Conway represents Private First Class Andrew Holmes of Boise, says the photos could exonerate his client.

“Our law firm certainly loves our country and we wouldn’t want to do anything to harm it," said Conway. "Most importantly the premeditated murder charge which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison.”

Conway is asking an Army Court of Criminal Appeals to allow him to introduce some of the photos as evidence in open court. He’s won a temporary stay on behalf of his client.

Another persistent issue in this case has been whether soldiers higher up the command chain will be held to account. An Army spokeswoman confirms an inquiry is underway into all aspects of this case, including whether there was a failure of leadership.