|Page (1) of 1 - 07/21/11||email article||print page|
Preliminary hearing reopens for US soldier accused of leading 'kill team' in Afghan deaths
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. (AP) ' A soldier who has already admitted his role in last year's thrill killings of three Afghan civilians took the witness stand Thursday against the sergeant he fingered as the mastermind of the grisly plot.
Pvt. Jeremy Morlock, of Wasilla, Alaska, testified that Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs started talking about the idea of slaughtering civilians soon after joining the unit in late 2009 and told unit members the he had previously fired on a civilian vehicle in Iraq with a machine gun.
"He'd been looking to implement something like that," Morlock testified before reiterating his claims that Gibbs was directly involved in the three deaths.
The testimony came as the Army reopened a preliminary hearing in Gibbs' case to give him the chance to cross-examine Morlock and other witnesses. Morlock earlier this year reached a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty and testify against others in exchange for a 24-year sentence.
Gibbs is accused of a wide range of misconduct, from providing a grenade used in January 2010 to kill the first victim, an unarmed farmer in a field in Kandahar Province, to directly shooting or tossing grenades at the next two in February and May of that year. In each case, Morlock said, he and Gibbs enlisted the assistance of one other soldier to carry out the murders.
Five soldiers in all have been charged with conspiracy and murder in the three killings, and another has been charged with discussing hypothetical murder scenarios with subordinates and with soliciting a murder that never occurred.
Prosecutors say Gibbs also led a group of others in assaulting a soldier who reported drug use in the unit, and that he threatened that same soldier with fingers severed from the bodies of dead Afghans. That soldier, Pfc. Justin Stoner, also took the stand Thursday and recounted the beating for an investigating officer who will ultimately make a recommendation on what charges against Gibbs should proceed to a court martial.
Stoner said that after the beating, Gibbs and Morlock paid him another visit to make sure he wasn't going to tell anyone about what happened. Gibbs then unrolled a cloth he took out of his pocket and displayed two severed fingers, warning Stoner that things could get worse if he blabbed.
"It was kind of yellow, shriveled, decrepit," Stoner said. "I just kind of sat there. I acknowledged everything he wanted me to acknowledge."
Gibbs denies the charges and maintains the killings were legitimate engagements.
Gibbs' attorney, Phillip Stackhouse, began his cross-examination of Morlock by questioning him about an early arrest stemming from an argument in a bar as well as his extensive drinking and hash smoking.
Morlock went on to say that while the idea of carrying "drop weapons" wasn't entirely new in the war zone ' soldiers often talked about keeping them as insurance for justifying legitimate battlefield decisions ' Gibbs put a "different kind of spin on it" by saying his men could use them to cover up deliberate murders.
He also acknowledged that Gibbs did not know in advance of the attack on the first victim. Gibbs gave him the grenade, urged him to make use of it if he had the chance to kill a civilian, and expressed satisfaction that Morlock carried it out, Morlock said.
Morlock's credibility has been an issue. His story forms the basis for many of the charges prosecutors brought, and it is the sole evidence that has come to light against two of his co-defendants, Pfc. Andrew Holmes, of Boise, Idaho, and Spc. Michael Wagnon, of Las Vegas. Morlock says the two knew what they were doing when they took part in the first two attacks, but they maintain they fired unwittingly and believed they were responding to actual combat.
Their lawyers have suggested Morlock implicated them simply to win a better plea deal from prosecutors, and a soldier who was imprisoned with Morlock provided a sworn statement alleging that Morlock admitted as much to him.
The case against Gibbs is based on statements from several soldiers, however. One, Spc. Adam Winfield, of Cape Coral, Fla., who has admitted firing at the third victim, said he shot only because Gibbs had threatened him, and others said they heard Gibbs suggesting that they could kill civilians and place "drop weapons" by their bodies to make the kills appear valid.
Another soldier and a friend of Gibbs, Staff Sgt. Robert G. Stevens, of Portland, Ore., has pleaded guilty to charges that he joined Gibbs and others in firing at ' but not harming ' a pair of unarmed men standing in a field in March 2010. Gibbs ordered them to shoot, Stevens told investigators.
"I was extremely thankful to find out that we had not killed or wounded either of those two individuals, and I regret not trying to stop Staff Sgt. Gibbs from trying to kill innocent people," he said in a sworn statement.
Stevens also said Gibbs had shown him a finger he claimed to have cut from the body of an Afghan National Army or Afghan National Police member killed by a roadside bomb.
Gibbs' hearing was expected to continue Friday.