By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Lawyers for one of five U.S. soldiers accused of murdering unarmed Afghan civilians for sport petitioned a military appeals court on Thursday to open grisly photographic evidence in the case to public scrutiny.
They also asked the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals outside Washington, D.C., to order a halt to the so-called Article 32 investigative proceedings against Private First Class Andrew Holmes until a decision on the photos is reached.
Holmes, 20, from Boise, Idaho, is the youngest of five soldiers charged with premeditated murder as part of an investigation of what military prosecutors describe as a rogue infantry platoon run amok earlier this year in the Afghan province of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold.
Seven others in their unit, part of what was then the 5th Striker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, face lesser charges in the case, which began as a probe of hashish use by the soldiers.
The inquiry has grown into the most serious prosecution of alleged atrocities by U.S. troops in nearly nine years of conflict in Afghanistan and a case Pentagon officials have acknowledged could undermine the American war effort there.
Several of the defendants, including Holmes, are alleged to have collected fingers and other body parts removed from dead Afghans as war trophies.
But the most potentially explosive elements of the case are dozens of ghoulish photos Holmes and others are accused of having taken of Afghan war dead, some said to be showing U.S. troops posing with the bodies.
The inflammatory nature of the images, vaguely described in court proceedings, has drawn comparisons to pictures of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison that sparked worldwide outrage in 2004 against U.S. conduct in Iraq.
A U.S. Army colonel who was overseeing the investigation ordered all photographic evidence in the case to remain under lock and key, exclusively in the possession of military investigators and their offices.
The appeals court petition says that order is effectively denying Holmes his constitutional right to a public trial because defense attorneys cannot cross-examine military investigators in open court about photographs they believe would show his innocence.
The defense maintains that the five to 10 photos in question are unclassified and would exonerate Holmes by demonstrating the victim was not killed by the kind of automatic weapon Holmes was armed with at the time.
His lawyers also denied the government had demonstrated any legitimate national security interest in excluding the photos from public view.
"There are only two choices in my mind -- give us the pictures or dismiss the charges," defense lawyer Gary Myers told Reuters by telephone.
The most serious charge against Holmes, which could result in life in prison, is premeditated murder in connection with the death of an Afghan villager investigators say was killed in January by a grenade blast and machine-gun fire.
That killing marked the first of three unjustified slayings soldiers in Holmes' platoon allegedly staged to look like legitimate war casualties from January through May.
At an evidentiary hearing earlier on Monday, Holmes declared in military court that he was innocent of murder. He is confined in a military brig at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington.
A decision on whether he should face a court-martial for murder and other charges is not expected for several weeks.
(Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton and Peter Bohan)