TACOMA, Wash (Reuters) – A U.S. Army sergeant charged with murdering three unarmed Afghan civilians as the ringleader of a rogue platoon spoke often about how "easy" it was to disguise such slayings as combat casualties, his chief accuser testified on Monday.
Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock, sentenced in March to 24 years in prison for his role in the same killings, was the first prosecution witness called to the stand as testimony got underway in the court-martial of Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs.
Prosecutors have cast Gibbs as the main instigator, and Morlock as his right-hand man, in the most egregious case of atrocities U.S. military personnel are accused of committing in 10 years of war in Afghanistan, conduct initially exposed through a probe of rampant drug abuse among soldiers.
Published photographs showing Morlock and another soldier posing separately with the bloodied corpse of an Afghan boy they had just killed have drawn comparisons to the inflammatory Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq in 2004.
Gibbs, 26, of Billings, Montana, was the highest-ranking of five enlisted men from the infantry unit formerly known as the 5th Stryker Brigade charged with murdering Afghan villagers while deployed last year in Kandahar province.
He was also charged with cutting fingers off Afghan bodies and beating a fellow soldier who had alerted superiors to hashish use in their unit. Seven other Stryker soldiers were charged with lesser offenses. Most have already reached plea deals and have been sentenced.
If convicted on all charges, Gibbs faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He pleaded not guilty on the first day of his court-martial on Friday.
'WE CAN GET AWAY WITH IT'
Morlock, echoing his previous sworn statements in the case, testified on Monday that he and Gibbs had held dozens of discussions about how they could stage random killings of Afghan civilians to look like legitimate combat engagements.
He recounted talking with Gibbs about planting weapons such as a captured AK-47 assault rifle or hand grenade near the bodies of victims to leave the impression that their patrol had come under attack.
"We can get away with it. It's that easy," he quoted Gibbs as telling him.
Gibbs sat silently through Morlock's testimony, staring straight ahead at the desk in front of him. The two men, both in full dress uniform, avoided eye contact with each other.
In opening statements, defense lawyer Phillip Stackhouse acknowledged that his client had removed fingers from Afghans killed in combat. But he said this was done on one occasion by accident in the process of quickly gathering biometric data from the corpse, as required by Army regulations. In other cases, he said, Gibbs was motivated by rage.
"Gibbs is mad; this individual had tried to kill him. These people had tried to kill him," Stackhouse said. "As the body is put in a body bag, he takes out a pair surgical shears and cuts off his index finger. Which one? The trigger finger."
Morlock agreed to testify against Gibbs and other co-defendants as part of a deal he reached with military prosecutors in March in which he pleaded guilty to three counts of premeditated murder and was sentenced to prison.
It was Morlock who appeared in photographs published in March by two magazines -- Der Spiegel and Rolling Stone -- showing him crouched smiling over the body of a 15-year-old Afghan boy, holding the boy's head up by the hair.
A similar photo was published of another member of the self-styled "kill team," Andrew Holmes, who pleaded guilty last month to a single count of murder and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
As those photos were displayed during Monday's proceedings, the three men and two women on the five-member jury panel leaned forward intently, cupping their hands to their mouths and cheeks.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)