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Army hearings continue into Afghan civilian killings

PFC Andrew Holmes of Boise, Idaho, is charged with murder and other crimes
US Army
PFC Andrew Holmes of Boise, Idaho, is charged with murder and other crimes

Private First Class Andrew Holmes of Boise joined the Army the day he turned 18. That was two years ago. By his 19th birthday he was fighting in Afghanistan. But he turned 20 this past August locked-up in an Army brig in Western Washington.

Andrew Holmes is one of the lesser known figures in the case of a group of Washington-based soldiers charged with murdering Afghan civilians. Today, the Army is scheduled to present its case against him.

Dana Holmes will never forget the day her son joined the Army.

“I did not believe that this was in his best interest, but I supported him because this was his decision and this is what he felt he needed to do,” said Holmes.

In Afghanistan, Homes was a young, green soldier getting his first taste of real war. His mother, of course, worried he wouldn’t come home. When he did, on leave last April, she was shocked.

 “He weighed 132 pounds, he didn’t sleep, he didn’t eat,” she said.

He paced the house in the middle of the night. On the day he left to go back, she says they both broke down at the airport.

“He just looked at me and he said: ‘Mama, I got a job to do, I signed up to do a job and now I have got to finish it.’ And I had to leave, I didn’t wait for him to get on the plane," Dana Holmes said.

She says she had no clue what was about to happen. Her son is one of five Washington-based soldiers implicated in what has been called the worst war crimes case to emerge from the war in Afghanistan.

The Army alleges Holmes was a member of a “kill team” that murdered innocent Afghan civilians for sport, posed for pictures with the dead and even collected body parts as war trophies.

Holmes’ civilian attorney is Daniel Conway who maintains his client’s innocence.

 “What I will say is this young man was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he didn’t knowingly participate in any of these so-called scenarios,” the defense attorney said.

There were three alleged murders between January and May of this year. Holmes is charged in connection with the first incident. It happened on January 15th in a poppy field in Southern Afghanistan.

The Army alleges a soldier named Jeremy Morlockthrew a grenade at an unarmed Afghan man. Army reports say Holmes opened fire. Attorney Conway claims photographs of the dead man – Gul Mudin - could exonerate Holmes.

“There is nothing in the photos that is suggestive that PFC Holmes’ machine gun was responsible for that man’s death and I’ll leave it at that for now,” said Conway.

He will not address the charge that Holmes posed for a picture holding up the dead man’s head by the hair – other than to say war trophy photos are as old as the camera itself.

The charges against Holmes and his fellow soldiers are shocking. But proving the case could prove difficult. Prosecutors don’t have even the most obvious evidence of a murder: the bodies.

The Army has not exhumed them in Afghanistan because it’s too dangerous. Instead the case mainly hinges on photographs and soldier statements. But that could be enough, according to Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale.

“It’s entirely possible to get a murder conviction without having the body. That’s not to say it’s not difficult and not a challenge for a prosecutor. But it can happen and I can understand why under the circumstances the government might not be able to produce corpses,” said Fidell.

Back in Boise, Dana Holmes is angry at the Army for not protecting her son from Spc. Morlock and Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the alleged ringleader.

“And I believe that they knew that Sgt. Gibbs and Spc. Morlock were not of sound mind and yet they put them in a position of power over these young men. I blame the Army one hundred percent for this whole mess,” said Holmes.

The Army would not comment for this story. Dana Homes says family members plan to pack the room for her son’s pre-trial hearing. It will determine if there’s enough evidence to court martial him.

Copyright 2010 Northwest News Network

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.