Pfc. Andrew Holmes was aware of sadistic schemes two of his platoon mates plotted to kill Afghan civilians, but he said in a courtroom Monday that he was not a part of those plans.
“I just want to take this opportunity to look you in the eye, to tell you soldier to soldier, that I did not commit murder in January,” Holmes told Army investigating officer Maj. Michael Liles in a brief statement during his Article 32 hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
His words marked the first time a Stryker brigade war crimes codefendant has made a statement in open court; three others have had the opportunity during their pre-trial hearings.
Holmes, one of five soldiers in his platoon facing murder charges, told investigators in June that Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs and Spc. Jeremy Morlock had talked about killing Afghan children by luring them to their vehicle with candy, or by tossing a grenade at someone and calling it a combat engagement.
Holmes, 20, was in a Joint Base Lewis-McChord court Monday for a hearing to determine whether he will go through a full court-martial trial. He faces charges that he killed an Afghan noncombatant in a January incident that resembled a scenario orchestrated by a few of his platoon mates in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
He insists he did not know the killing was staged when Morlock yelled “grenade” and ordered him to fire a heavy machine gun at an Afghan standing less than 10 feet away.
Holmes is the youngest of the soldiers in his platoon facing murder charges. Seven others allegedly committed lesser crimes and are awaiting proceedings at the base.
At least 10 friends and family from Holmes’ home state of Idaho joined him in the court. He appeared to be in good spirits, often smiling at family members and thanking them for making the trip.
“I’m proud of my son,” said his father, Forest Holmes of Pocatello. “He made a very brave statement when he told the investigating officer he did not commit a murder.”
The hearing is expected to continue today with closing arguments and testimony from an Army criminal investigator stationed in Afghanistan.
In addition to the murder charge, Holmes allegedly kept photographs of Afghan casualties in violation of a general order, possessed a finger taken from a corpse and smoked hashish during his deployment.
His two civilian attorneys focused mostly on attacking the most serious charge. They called on a witness who said Holmes did not kill the man; they also demanded the Army release photographs of the victim.
Those images, along with about 60 others related to Holmes’ codefendants, are being held at Lewis-McChord’s Criminal Investigations Division. They were ordered to remain concealed by Col. Barry Huggins out of concerns that they could inflame sentiments against American soldiers serving in the Middle East. Huggins is the commander of Holmes’ brigade.
Holmes’ attorneys contend they can’t properly defend him without being able to call expert witnesses who could analyze the photos and form an opinion about whether Holmes’ machine gun killed the Afghan man.
At least three soldiers fired weapons in the direction of the man, according to testimony and witness statements. Morlock tossed a grenade. Holmes fired a squad automatic weapon, which quickly fires large rounds.
Moments later, Staff Sgt. Kris Sprague was asked to make sure the man was dead; he fired two rounds from his rifle into the Afghan’s back. (Sprague has not been charged with murder, and some accounts say the man was dead by the time Sprague arrived at the scene.)
Holmes’ attorneys have seen the photos and contend they show that Morlock’s grenade likely killed the man. They want the Army to allow a forensic expert to review the photos or release them in open court.
They filed a motion with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces to overturn Huggins’ ruling or force a stay in the proceedings that could result in Holmes being released.
They did not see evidence in the photos that Holmes’ weapon caused the death.
Capt. Dre Leblanc, the prosecutor leading the case, asked a criminal investigator who catalogs the images if one photo showed Holmes holding up the head of the victim. Special Agent Aaron Vantilburg confirmed that description.
Another criminal investigator, Special Agent Nicole Fermanis, said that Holmes told her in June that the photo was of “the guy I killed.”
Holmes “was excited,” Fermanis said. “He was excited because he had killed a guy and that was his job.”
It was unclear from Fermanis’ testimony whether Holmes knew the killing was a setup when the incident unfolded.
Morlock in May told investigators that Holmes was aware the killing was staged. Morlock’s videotaped and written statements provide much of the testimony against Holmes.
Morlock already had his pre-trial hearing and will be scheduled at a later date for a full court-martial on murder conspiracy and other charges.
Spc. Ryan Mallett, who witnessed the January killing, said it appeared to be a legitimate combat engagement; he said the body did not appear to have been struck by Holmes’ machine gun.
Mallett said he heard Morlock yell “He’s got a grenade” and order Holmes to fire. He saw Holmes fire the machine gun from above a 5-foot wall and then duck as Morlock grabbed him and threw a grenade.
Mallett said Holmes “looked kind of shocked by how fast it happened” after the grenade exploded. Morlock looked “in control,” Mallett said.
Mallett, who shared living quarters with Holmes in Afghanistan, patted his former roommate on the shoulder when he entered the courtroom Monday.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/military