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Army delays last “kill team” case, postponing trial for two months

Post by Adam Ashton / The News Tribune on Jan. 9, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
January 9, 2012 12:26 pm
Spc. Michael Wagnon

The Army put its last case in its “kill team” investigation on hold for another two months to give the defense team for the accused Spc. Michael Wagnon time to wrap up its preparations.

Wagnon, 31, allegedly shot at an Afghan noncombatant in February 2010 to help two other soldiers cover up an illegitimate killing. He has pleaded not guilty, arguing that he shot at the Afghan because he thought the victim fired first.

Wagnon’s court-martial was expected to begin Jan. 20. It has been delayed until March 12, his attorney, Colby Vokey, said today. Wagnon faces life in prison if he’s convicted on the murder charge.

Wagnon has received two heartening reviews of his case from investigating officer Maj. Michael Liles over the past 15 months. Liles twice heard testimony about Wagnon and twice recommended the Army not proceed with a murder charge because of the relatively thin evidence against him.

The case was built on admitted “kill team” participant Pvt. Jeremy Morlock’s account that Wagnon willingly joined then-Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs in a scheme to murder an Afghan noncombatant during a patrol with their platoon from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Other witnesses contradicted Morlock’s account of how their patrol unfolded that day.

The ground shifted for Wagnon in November when a five-solder jury panel found “kill team” ringleader Gibbs guilty of murdering three Afghans, including the victim from the February 2010 patrol. Gibbs was sentenced to life in prison.

Morlock, Gibbs’ right-hand man, provided the most damaging testimony against Gibbs and he is expected to be a key witness at Wagnon’s trial. Prosecutors during Gibbs’ trial displayed a photograph that showed Gibbs, Morlock and Wagnon posing over the Afghan’s corpse on the day of the killing.

Morlock in March pleaded guilty to murdering the three Afghan victims with Gibbs and received a 24-year prison sentence.

Vokey has attacked Morlock’s credibility at past pretrial hearings, drawing out admissions from Morlock about his alcohol abuse, his drug use during his deployment, and his reliance on prescription drugs.

Vokey said the trial delay will give him time to pursue a request for an expert witness that might help evaluate Morlock. It also gives Wagnon time to interview Gibbs, who recently received a grant of immunity for future testimony.

“I think Gibbs will be very helpful,” Vokey said.

Gibbs in November insisted the Afghan from the February 2010 patrol shot at him first. He said Wagnon ran to the scene and fired at the man. Gibbs also recommended that Wagnon receive a commendation for his response that day.

Prosecutors countered that Gibbs recommended Wagnon for a medal only so he could embellish his cover-story and get away with murdering the Afghan.

The Army has convicted 11 of Wagnon’s platoon mates for misconduct during their 2009-10 deployment. Gibbs, Morlock and two others have been convicted of joining in combat-like murder scenarios.

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