The Army announced today that it will prosecute the fifth and final member of a group of Stryker soldiers who allegedly murdered Afghan civilians during patrols last year despite a review that cited weaknesses in the case against the soldier.
The announcement is a setback to Spc. Michael Wagnon, 30, whose family had hoped that the Army would dismiss charges against him after an investigating officer reviewed the case in November and reported that there was little evidence against him.
That report went to Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the senior general at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, who determined the Army has evidence to proceed with a court-martial against Wagnon.
Wagnon will face a court-martial on charges that he murdered an Afghan civilian during a February patrol, shot at unarmed Afghans in March and participated in conspiracies to harm Afghans. He could be sentenced to life in prison if he’s convicted.
The Army dismissed two charges from Wagnon’s case. One alleged that he kept a piece of skull from an Afghan corpse; the other accused him of trying to obstruct the Army’s investigation into his platoon’s misconduct by destroying images of Afghan casualties on his computer.
His attorney debunked both of those charges at an Article 32 hearing in November. Wagnon’s platoon mates said the skull fragment he kept came from a camel, not a person.
Wagnon’s one of 12 soldiers in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division who are accused of misconduct at Forward Operating Base Ramrod in southern Afghanistan last year. Three soldiers in the group have already pled guilty to crimes during their deployment and agreed to testify against their codefendants.
The five accused of murdering civilians are expected to face courts-martial in coming months, though dates have not been announced for most of them.
The murder charge against Wagnon, a father of three from Las Vegas, is based on a February incident that the Army contends was a staged killing. In it, Wagnon allegedly shot his rifle at an Afghan noncombatant to help Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs cover up the killing.
The prosecution argues that Gibbs isolated the Afghan, fired an AK-47 at a wall, shot the Afghan with his Army-issued rifle and dropped the AK-47 on the corpse to make it appear as if the Afghan fired first.
Gibbs is the main target in the Army’s war crimes investigation. He’s accused of murdering three Afghans between January and May and keeping bones from Afghan corpses. He denies the charges and is awaiting an April 4 court-martial.
Maj. Michael Liles presided over the November hearing where the Army presented its case against Wagnon and found little evidence to substantiate the murder charge.
For example, one witness to the February incident gave Army investigators conflicting accounts about whether Wagnon knew about Gibbs’ alleged plots to kill Afghans.
That witness, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, did not testify at Wagnon’s November Article 32 hearing because he’s a codefendant in the case and invoked his 5th Amendment right not to incriminate himself. He allegedly helped Gibbs execute killing schemes and is charged with the three murders that make up the case against Gibbs.
“I saw no testimony or evidence that supports that Spc. Wagnon was involved in conspiracy to commit premeditated murder of Afghan noncombatants,” wrote Liles in a report on Wagnon’s case.
Morlock last week submitted a plea deal to the prosecution that would require him to testify against his codefendants. He’s expected to face a court-martial in February.
Defense attorneys have already begun attacking his credibility. Wagnon’s platoon mates, for instance, testified in November that they didn’t trust Morlock. Another witness to the February shooting testified that Wagnon was not with Gibbs when the first shots were fired and could not have known the killing was staged.
The prosecution counters that Wagnon was following Gibbs’ instructions and that he helped to cover up the killing to show that he was a willing participant in Gibbs’ murder schemes.