By Laura L. Myers
TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - The youngest of five U.S. soldiers accused of murdering unarmed Afghan civilians stood up in military court on Monday to declare his innocence as defense lawyers moved to open grisly photographic evidence in the case to public scrutiny.
"I want to tell you, soldier to soldier, that I did not commit murder," Private First Class Andrew Holmes, 20, from Boise, Idaho, said as he rose from his chair to face the court's presiding officer. "I am innocent."
The declaration capped nine hours of testimony from fellow soldiers and criminal investigators presented during the so-called Article 32 hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, to determine whether Holmes should stand trial in a court-martial.
His was the latest of four such proceedings in recent weeks stemming from an investigation of what prosecutors describe as an infantry platoon run amok earlier this year in the Afghan province of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold.
The inquiry has grown into the most serious prosecution of alleged atrocities by U.S. troops in nearly nine years of conflict in Afghanistan and a case that Pentagon officials have acknowledged could undermine the American war effort there.
Among the evidence in the case still sealed from the public are dozens of inflammatory photos, including U.S. soldiers posing with Afghan war dead.
The inflammatory nature of the images, vaguely described in court proceedings, has drawn comparisons to pictures of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison that sparked worldwide outrage in 2004 against U.S. conduct in Iraq.
Holmes' hearing, originally slated to adjourn by day's end, was recessed for at least another day after his civilian lawyers said they would petition the Army Court of Criminal Appeals outside Washington, D.C., to intervene in the case.
Defense attorney Gary Myers told Reuters he would seek a court order on Tuesday requiring military prosecutors to produce in open court sealed photos that Holmes' lawyers say would exonerate their client or dismiss the case against him.
The most serious charge against Holmes, which could result in the death penalty, is premeditated murder in connection with the death of an Afghan villager who investigators say was killed in January by a grenade blast and machine-gun fire.
That killing marked the first of three unjustified slayings that soldiers in Holmes' platoon, part of an infantry unit then known as the 5th Stryker Brigade, allegedly staged to look like legitimate war casualties.
A total of five soldiers are accused of taking part in some or all of the killings, and seven other GIs face lesser offenses in the case, which began as a probe into hashish use by the troops. All 12 are enlisted men, none above the rank of sergeant.
The alleged ringleader in the rogue platoon, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, 26, appeared for an Article 32 hearing last week. His alleged right-hand man, Corporal Jeremy Morlock, 22, was referred for court-martial last month.
BODY PARTS AND PHOTOS
Several of the defendants, including Holmes, Morlock and Gibbs, are alleged to have collected fingers and other body parts removed from dead Afghans as war trophies.
But the most potentially explosive elements of the case are dozens of ghoulish photos that Holmes, Morlock and two others are accused of having taken of Afghan war dead, some showing U.S. troops posing with the bodies.
The images have so far been kept sealed from public view by the military.
But Holmes' legal team has seen photos taken from the scene of the Afghan killing in January that "tend to demonstrate that our client is not guilty," Myers said told Reuters after the hearing. "They do not demonstrate in our mind that the individual in question was killed by an automatic weapon, which is what our client was carrying."
Myers said that in barring the pictures from being admitted as evidence in open court, the military is denying Holmes his constitutional right to a public trial.
The killing for which Holmes is charged with murder was described in some detail on Monday by testimony from Army Specialist Ryan Mallett, a roommate of Holmes on deployment who described himself as a good friend of the defendant.
He recounted that the victim, one of two farmers the soldiers encountered on patrol, was singled out by Morlock, who motioned for the villager to approach the troops.
Mallett said Morlock directed the man to lift up his shirt, then suddenly yelled, "Grenade, grenade!" and ordered Holmes to shoot at him. He said Holmes complied as Morlock lobbed a grenade that exploded in front of the victim, followed by additional gunfire from a third soldier. But Mallett said he was unsure whether any of Holmes' gunfire struck the man.
(Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Bohan)