JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Washington (AFP) – A US soldier pleaded guilty to targeting Afghan civilians for execution, under a plea bargain for his part in a rogue US Army unit in southern Afghanistan.
Corporal Jeremy Morlock, who is set to testify against four co-accused, admitted murdering or helping to kill three men, and using illegally obtained Afghan weapons to make it appear that the victims were enemy combatants.
Under a plea deal revealed at his court-martial, he will avoid life imprisonment, being sentenced to 24 years in a military jail and dishonorably discharged. His lawyer said he would be eligible for parole after seven years.
Morlock was the first soldier to face court-martial out of five members of a rogue US unit from the Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Division’s Stryker brigade, based out of Fort Lewis, Washington.
They were deployed in the southern Kandahar region of Afghanistan over several months early last year.
In addition to allegations that the soldiers formed a so-called “kill squad,” prosecutors charged Morlock and other members of his unit with taking gruesome trophies in the form of bones from dead Afghans and smoking hashish.
They also allegedly assaulted another soldier who blew the whistle on the unit’s drug use and violence.
Morlock, at times speaking in a barely audible mumble, explained the plot to start targeting civilians was first hatched in November 2009.
Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs — who Morlock fingers as the ringleader — showed the men a stash of weapons he had illegally obtained in Afghanistan, and allegedly led them in formulating a plan to shoot people and plant one of the weapons on the body to make it look as if the killing was in self-defense.
“Were you going to shoot at (civilians) to scare them and it got out of hand?” Judge Lieutenant Colonel Kwasi Hawks asked the hearing.
“The plan was to kill people,” Morlock replied without any hesitation.
The first victim of the kill squad died in January 2010. Morlock said the unit was in a village so that army leaders could meet with elders.
He and Private Andrew Holmes were on patrol when a man walked toward the two soldiers, who positioned themselves behind a waist-high wall.
Morlock tossed a grenade over the wall near himself and Holmes to make it appear as if the Afghan man had thrown it, and Holmes fired at the man with his machine gun.
Morlock is also the government’s star witness against the four other soldiers accused over the execution of Afghan civilians — in particular the alleged ring-leader, Gibbs.
The three others facing charges are Holmes, Specialist Michael Wagnon, and Specialist Adam Winfield.
Morlock led Army investigators to gruesome trophies allegedly taken from the bodies of civilians killed by the rogue.
After Wednesday’s hearing Morlock’s lawyer Frank Spinner said his client will be eligible for parole in about seven years — and reiterated Gibbs’ alleged ringleader role.
Morlock’s “mistake was going along with Sgt. Gibbs,” he told reporters.
At a pre-trial hearing for Holmes in November, Special Agent Benjamin Stevenson testified that, using a map drawn by Morlock, he found severed fingers in a large protective barrier near where the soldiers lived.
On Monday this week the German news magazine Der Spiegel published three grisly pictures, out of a reported cache of 4,000 documents, showing Morlock and Holmes holding up the bloodied head of a corpse.
Attorneys for the other accused soldiers have been painting Morlock as a drug-addled, mentally unstable, and fundamentally unreliable witness.
At a pre-trial hearing in November 2010 for Gibbs, defense attorney Phillip Stackhouse argued that his client had played no role in the killings.
Stackhouse asked the judge presiding over that hearing to consider Gibbs’s assertion of innocence “with these dope-smoking soldiers in a combat zone. Who are you going to believe, where does the credibility lay?”
“It’s just as likely that Morlock was responsible for all of these (murders),” Stackhouse added.