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Soldier in Afghan murder case sent to home confinement

By Laura L. Myers

TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A U.S. Army judge on Friday ordered one of five soldiers charged with murdering unarmed Afghan civilians to be released from jail and placed under home confinement while he awaits his court-martial.

Army Specialist Michael Wagnon, 30, was freed from military detention at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, fitted with an electronic monitoring device and taken to his residence on the base, civilian defense lawyer Colby Vokey told Reuters.

The judge granted Vokey's request to transfer Wagnon to home confinement on grounds of unwarranted delays in bringing his case to trial, currently set for June 13.

Defense attorneys had not yet received the Wagnon's formal release order, but conditions include base supervision and transfer from the Army's Bravo company to a different company under Joint Base Lewis-McChord's organizational structure.

"Michael was very emotional. He was crying," Vokey said. "He said he can't believe that he's going to be able to sleep with his wife at home tonight and spend time with his kids."

During Wagnon's referral to court-martial, charges that include obstruction of justice and beating of a platoon mate were dropped, likely contributing to the judge's decision to release Wagnon, Vokey said.

Vokey argued at a hearing on Thursday that Wagnon was not a flight risk and need not remain in pretrial detention.

Wagnon himself testified on Thursday that he and others had been kept locked up to prevent them from publicly discussing what is the most serious prosecution of alleged U.S. military atrocities during 10 years of war in Afghanistan.

"We were a media risk," he told Judge Lieutenant Colonel Kwasi Hawks.

Wagnon is the first released from pretrial detention among five soldiers charged with killing Afghan civilians in cold blood last year as part of a rogue combat platoon under the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

Last month two magazines published photos related to the killings, two of them showing soldiers crouched over the bloodied corpse of a 15-year-old Afghan villager as they lifted the boy's head by the hair for the camera.

The existence of such images, among dozens seized as evidence and ordered sealed from public view by the Army, has drawn comparisons with photos of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004.

Seven other soldiers were charged with lesser offenses in the Stryker case, which began as a probe of widespread hashish use by troops stationed in the Afghan province of Kandahar.

One of the soldiers shown in the photos, Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock, was sentenced last month to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of premeditated murder, saying he had "lost my moral compass."

As part of his plea deal, Morlock agreed to testify against the remaining defendants.

Vokey insists his client is innocent and that prosecutors lacked any physical and forensic evidence to prove Wagnon took part in the February 2010 Afghan civilian slaying allegedly staged to appear as a legitimate combat casualty.

"The entire case of murder depends on one witness," he said, referring to Morlock.

Vokey noted that the investigating officer who presided over the evidence-gathering phase of the case recommended on December 10 that the Army drop most of the charges against Wagnon, including charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

The base commander nonetheless referred Wagnon for general court-martial, dismissing only two bad-conduct charges.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Bohan)