By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - One of five U.S. soldiers accused of killing Afghan civilians in cold blood was freed on Friday from a year of pretrial detention and an Army major has recommended that the current charge of premeditated murder be reduced to manslaughter, the soldier's lawyer said.
The release of Private Andrew Holmes came weeks after an Army judge ordered fact-finding proceedings reopened and granted a defense request for a new evidentiary hearing in the case, which was referred in January for court-martial.
Major Michael Liles, the investigating officer who presided over the new hearing last month, concluded that military prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence to prove the murder charge, for which Holmes faced a life sentence if convicted.
Instead, Liles urged that Holmes be charged with the lesser offense of manslaughter stemming from the death of a young, unarmed Afghan villager. Under the military code of justice, manslaughter is punishable by a prison term of up to 15 years.
Ultimately, the decision to accept or reject Liles' recommendation rests with the top two commanders at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, the home installation for Holmes' Army unit.
Liles' report was issued June 7 and furnished on Friday to Holmes' civilian lawyer, Dan Conway, who provided it to Reuters. Conway said the recommendation "reenergizes us."
Holmes is the youngest of five members of an infantry unit formerly called the 5th Stryker Brigade charged with murder in connection with three Afghan civilian slayings investigators say were staged to look like legitimate combat casualties.
One of the other soldiers, Jeremy Morlock, was sentenced to 24 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to three counts of murder and agreed to testify against his co-defendants.
Another of the accused, Michael Wagnon, was released in April from pretrial confinement, and two others remain in detention -- Adam Winfield and the alleged "kill team" ringleader, Calvin Gibbs.
Holmes, who is from Boise, Idaho, remains restricted to Washington state and is required to wear an electronic monitor on his ankle, Army spokesman Christopher Ophardt said.
He said Army commanders let Holmes out of detention after deciding "he is no longer a flight risk or will conduct serious misconduct in society." He immediately returned to his unit for administrative duty, Ophardt said.
Family members said in a statement on Friday that Holmes had been incarcerated since returning to duty in Afghanistan from a home leave in May of 2010, and expressed hope that his release from the brig marked a turning point in his favor.
"We are guardedly optimistic that this may also be the first step taken toward a larger, more definitive release from custody and dismissal of charges."
The investigation into the incidents involving Holmes and the four Stryker troops, which began as a probe of hashish use by soldiers, has grown into the most serious prosecution of alleged atrocities by the U.S. military during 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
Holmes faces a single count of murder stemming from the death of a 15-year-old Afghan boy in January 2010.
Both he and Morlock appear in photos published in March showing them, posed separately, crouched over the bloodied, prone corpse of the Afghan youth, holding his head up for the camera by the hair.
At his first evidential hearing last year, Holmes professed his innocence to the presiding officer, declaring, "I want to tell you, soldier to soldier, that I did not commit murder."
Liles said that photos of the victim's body presented as defense evidence last month showed the "lack of bullet pattern that would be consistent with" the type of machine-gun Holmes was carrying at the time. Holmes has admitted firing his weapon on orders from Morlock but that he intentionally missed.
A trial date of September 19 has been set, Conway said.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton)