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“Kill team” suspect pleads guilty to causing Afghan’s death

Post by Adam Ashton / The News Tribune on Sep. 22, 2011 at 11:23 am |
September 22, 2011 4:38 pm

4 PM UPDATE:

Army Judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks accepted “kill team” suspect Pfc. Andrew Holmes’ guilty plea, and the court is preparing for closing arguments that could help determine his sentence.

Hawks asked Holmes a series of questions today to determine whether the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker soldier believed he was guilty, and whether Holmes understood the terms of his plea deal.

The questions revealed a chaotic environment at Forward Operating Base Ramrod in Afghanistan, where Holmes’ leaders put him in compromising situations.

For example, Holmes told the judge that Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs of Billings, Mont., handed him a finger from an Afghan’s corpse. Gibbs outranked Holmes, and Holmes said his failure was in not refusing the noncomissioned officer.  Holmes said he threw the finger in the trash a day later.

“There is no reason why a human being should want a deceased person’s finger,” Holmes said.

The Army alleges that Gibbs was the “kill team” ringleader. He’s awaiting a court-martial on charges that he murdered three Afghans.

Hawks also pointed out that Holmes was obeying an order from a soldier who outranked him when he shot and killed an Afghan during a patrol in January 2010. Holmes says he now knows that killing was unlawful.

“When it came down to it, I was ordered to fire and I knew should’ve taken cover,” Holmes said.

Closing arguments are expected to take place this afternoon, but Holmes will not be sentenced until tomorrow, an Army spokesman said.

2:10 PM UPDATE:

“Kill team” suspect Pfc. Andrew Holmes has pleaded guilty to causing an Afghan’s death, but he’s stopping short of admitting he knew the victim was innocent when he pulled the trigger.

Holmes, 21, pleaded guilty to committing murder through inherently dangerous conduct. He also pleaded guilty to smoking marijuana during his deployment to southern Afghanistan, and to possessing a human finger taken from an Afghan’s corpse.

Army Judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks is evaluating Holmes’ plea, and the judge appears concerned that Holmes did not know the victim was innocent when Holmes shot him. That could jeopardize Holmes’ deal.

Holmes for the first time admitted that he shot a 15-year-old Afghan with an automatic machine gun when his former team leader, then- Spc. Jeremy Morlock, ordered him to fire. Holmes today said he was aware that Morlock had an “off the books” grenade, and Holmes said he had talked with Morlock about killing Afghans.

Holmes said he was uncomfortable with those conversations. He said they contributed to a sense of unease he felt when Morlock called on him to shoot at the young Afghan.

Holmes said the victim was clearly unarmed when Morlock yelled that the Afghan had a grenade and ordered him to shoot.

“I could see his has hands were empty,” Holmes said. “I could see he didn’t have a weapon. I had a moment where the right thing for me to do was to take cover. I fired six to eight rounds at the man, and I’ve regretted it ever since.”

“There was a lot of confusion that day,” Holmes said. “But I believe that when I pulled the trigger, there was a chance the guy was innocent.”

Holmes also is hedging on whether his weapon directly caused the Afghan’s death. He said he is basing that opinion on remarks he heard from platoon mate Staff Sgt. Kris Sprague. The Afghan could have been killed by Morlock’s grenade. The Army does not have physical evidence to settle the question.

“I do believe that my rounds and my actions led to (the Afghan’s) death,” Holmes said.

Holmes is joined in court today by about a dozen supporters, including his parents from Idaho and “kill team” codefendant Spc. Michael Wagnon.

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A court-martial for Stryker “kill team” suspect Pfc. Andrew Holmes has been delayed this morning because of ongoing plea negotiations, his attorney said this morning.

The Army sent out a press release yesterday saying the court-martial would begin at 9 a.m. It has been pushed back to 1 p.m. Earlier, the trial was scheduled to start last week.

Holmes’ plea deal must be accepted by Joint Base Lewis-McChord senior Army officer Maj. Gen. Lloyd Miles before a court-martial begins. If the two sides can’t reach an agreement, Holmes would face a mandatory minimum life sentence if he’s convicted of murdering an Afghan civilian during a patrol last year.

Holmes, 21, of Boise is the youngest of five soldiers from Lewis-McChord’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division who were accused of murdering Afghans last year.

Holmes insists he’s innocent, saying he didn’t knowingly participate in a murder when he shot at a young Afghan during a January 2010 patrol with “kill team” codefendant Pvt. Jeremy Morlock. Morlock has pleaded guilty to his role in killing three Afghans, and he has said Holmes joined him in carrying out one of the murders.

We’ll be updating this story throughout the day once the court-martial begins.

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