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Charges dropped against U.S. soldier in Afghan murder

SEATTLE (Reuters) - The U.S. Army has dismissed all charges against the last of five soldiers to face a court-martial in the slaying of unarmed Afghan civilians, officials from their home base near Tacoma, Washington, said on Friday.

Army Specialist Michael Wagnon had been charged with premediated murder in the death of a villager in Afghanistan during a tour of duty in February 2010.

"As of right now, he's pretty much a free man," said Lieutenant Colonel Gary Dangerfield, a spokesman for Joint Base Lewis-McChord. "He is still in the Army but a free man."

Wagnon, 31, was released from military detention and placed under home confinement in April.

Dangerfield would not say why the charges were dropped, and a statement from the base said only that the move was "in the interest of justice."

Five members of the infantry unit formerly known as the 5th Stryker Brigade were charged with killing Afghan civilians in cold blood in random attacks staged to look like legitimate combat engagements. Seven other soldiers were charged with lesser offenses in a case that began as an investigation into rampant hashish abuse within the unit.

Wagnon's initial reaction to news of the dismissal was stunned disbelief, his defense attorney Colby Vokey told Reuters. He then became "ecstatic" and "really relieved," Vokey added.

'THE RIGHT THING TO DO'

Vokey, based in Dallas, called the dismissal "fantastic news." He said the "Army did the right thing. We maintained all along his innocence and the government said it was the right thing to do."

Pentagon officials have said that misconduct exposed by the case had damaged the image of the United States abroad.

Photographs entered as evidence showed the accused ringleader of the group, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, and other soldiers casually posing with bloodied Afghan corpses, drawing comparisons to the to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq in 2004.

Gibbs was convicted by court-martial in November of murdering three unarmed civilians, drawing an automatic life prison sentence, but he will be eligible for parole in 8 1/2 years.

His chief accuser and onetime right-hand man, Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock, was sentenced in March of last year to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to the same three murders. As part of his plea deal, Morlock had agreed to testify against the remaining witnesses, including Wagnon.

A third soldier charged with murder, Adam Winfield, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to three years in prison. A fourth, Andrew Holmes, was sentenced to seven years after pleading guilty to a single count of murder.

Wagnon was the last to face court-martial.

The dismissal of charges comes less than two weeks after a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant accused of leading a 2005 massacre of 24 civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha pleaded guilty to one count of dereliction of duty. As part of his plea deal, the Marine, Frank Wuterich he was spared jail time and instead faces a maximum penalty of demotion to the rank of private.

Wuterich initially was charged with murder in connection with the Haditha killings. Six of the seven other Marines originally accused in that case previously had their charges dismissed by military judges, while another was cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

(Additional reporting and writing by Mary Slosson; Editing by Steve Gorman and Will Dunham)

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