|FILE - In this Oct. 31, 2011 file photo, U.S. Army Spc. Michael Wagnon, of Las Vegas, walks at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washingon state. The Army on Friday, Feb. 3, 2012 dropped all charges against, Wagnon, the fifth soldier it had accused of murdering Afghan civilians for sport during a 2010 deployment. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)|
Charges dropped against soldier in Afghan deaths
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash.—The Army on Friday dropped all charges against the fifth soldier it had accused of killing Afghan civilians for sport during a 2010 deployment.
Spc. Michael Wagnon, 31, of Las Vegas, had been charged with the unlawful killing of one Afghan civilian in February 2010. He was expected to go on trial in March.
In a statement, Joint Base Lewis-McChord said the charges were dismissed "in the interest of justice."
Wagnon's lawyer, Colby Vokey, said his client was "ecstatic" at the news, "very, very relieved" and eager to tell his wife.
"He kept saying over and over, `This is great news -- I can't wait to tell Carrie,'" Vokey told The Associated Press in a telephone interview late Friday.
Four other soldiers from a Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade have been sent to prison in connection with the killings of three unarmed men during patrols in Kandahar province.
In all, 12 soldiers were charged in connection with alleged misconduct that in addition to murder included hash smoking, collection of illicit weapons, the mutilation and photography of Afghan remains and the gang-beating of a soldier who reported the drug use.
Eleven soldiers were convicted on various counts.
An Army investigating officer had twice recommended that prosecutors dismiss the case against Wagnon.
Vokey said he thinks preparations for the impending trial "just kept developing the evidence of Michael's innocence until it just became overwhelming.
"The witnesses coming forward that we were able to speak to all confirmed the same thing -- that Michael Wagnon had nothing to do with any kind of illegal activity," the lawyer said.
The case hinged on an account from a "kill team" participant, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, who is serving 24 years after admitting his involvement in all three killings. Morlock testified that Wagnon knowingly participated in a scheme to kill a civilian.
Wagnon had testified that he shot at an Afghan on the day in question because he believed the man had fired a weapon at Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs. Gibbs in November was sentenced to life in prison in the killings of three Afghans, including the man in the February 2010 encounter.
Wagnon "was simply a soldier pulling security who responded to the firing of weapons and came to support another soldier," Vokey said. "That's all Michael Wagnon ever did."
The Army said the decision to dismiss charges was made by the senior Army commander of 1 Corps at the base, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Miles.
An Army spokesman, Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield, said Friday evening that he had no details as to how the decision was reached.
Wagnon was released from custody in June. He has been living unrestricted at the base and working as a soldier, his lawyer said.
Vokey said he didn't know what's next for his client. "He's just ready to get on with his life," the lawyer said.
"One of the amazing things is that even with all this hanging over his head, he still loves the Army," Vokey said. "He's never blamed the Army for this happening -- never become bitter. As an organization, he loves the Army."
Dangerfield said Wagnon "should be able to continue his normal duties as a soldier."