Case Dismissed Against GI Accused in Afghan Death

GRAFENWÖHR, Germany -- The Army has dismissed its case against a platoon sergeant who had faced homicide charges in the shooting death of a prominent Afghan civilian, ending a yearlong investigation that threatened court-martial and imprisonment for the soldier.

The decision allows Sgt. 1st Class Walter Taylor to resume his career and continue treatment for combat wounds he suffered days after the shooting, during another patrol.

Taylor’s lawyer, James Culp, welcomed the decision.

“It is monumentally stressful to defend a Soldier you know to be completely innocent, and even more so when that person becomes your friend,” Culp wrote in an email. “This is a very good day.”

Taylor, currently in the U.S. for a medical appointment, learned Thursday of the decision, made by Col. Darren Werner, senior commander of the 16th Sustainment Brigade in Bamberg. Werner’s decision followed a recommendation by an Army investigating officer that the case be dropped.

The Army charged Taylor, of the 54th Engineer Battalion in Bamberg, with negligent homicide in May after he shot Afghan civilian Dr. Aqilah Hikmat immediately following a July 2011 firefight involving Taylor’s route clearance platoon in Wardak province.

In a June pre-trial hearing, Taylor, 31, said he believed Hikmat was moments away from detonating a bomb when she stepped out of a car that had strayed into a firefight between U.S. troops and insurgents. Hikmat and her family, returning from a wedding, had attempted to drive around the firefight that erupted after Taylor’s platoon hit a massive roadside bomb, according to investigators.

The platoon fired on the vehicle, killing Hikmat’s son and niece and injuring her husband. Taylor and others later approached the vehicle as they traced what they thought was a command wire -- often used to detonate roadside bombs -- that appeared to run toward it.

Taylor was severely injured days later on another patrol, after a rocket-propelled grenade struck his vehicle. His face remains disfigured and in need of reconstructive surgery.

The case centered on the military’s rules of engagement and their application in the heat of combat: Does the instinct to defend oneself trump the stated rule that a soldier must positively identify a target before shooting?

Army attorneys argued Taylor failed to properly identify a threat when he pulled the trigger against Hikmat. Culp argued the Army was “Monday-morning quarterbacking” a split-second decision, and he suggested pressure from Afghan government officials led to the charges.

Last Tuesday, an Army investigating officer rejected the Army’s arguments, concluding in a 10-page report following the hearing that Taylor faced a slew of potential threats, each properly identified by himself or his soldiers during the firefight and immediately after.

Citing the rules of engagement in Afghanistan and other military guidance, the investigating officer, Lt. Col. Alva Hart of the 16th Sustainment Brigade, wrote that positive identification was “only possible in hindsight.”

“As expressed throughout the documents in this case, [positive identification] is not a 100% certainty of hostile act or intent but a reasonable certainty based the information at hand (sic),” Hart wrote.

Hart also dismissed two crucial pieces of evidence against Taylor -- testimony by a platoon member that Taylor smiled and taunted Hikmat’s husband after the shooting and Taylor’s original statement to a criminal investigating officer.

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Army Afghanistan Crime