JBLM soldier gets 24 years for murder of 3 Afghan civilians

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by Associated Press

KING5.com

Posted on March 23, 2011 at 8:00 AM

Updated Wednesday, Mar 23 at 5:30 PM

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -  A military judge has sentenced a U.S. soldier to 24 years in prison for his role in a conspiracy with fellow soldiers that led to the murders of three unarmed Afghan civilians.

The decision by Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks on Wednesday comes after Spc. Jeremy Morlock pleaded guilty to three counts of murder, and one count each of conspiracy, obstructing justice and illegal drug use at his court martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The judge said he intended to sentence Morlock to life in prison with possibility of parole but he was bound the plea deal that called for a maximum sentence of 24 years.

The 22-year-old Morlock is one of five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade charged in the 2010 killings of three Afghans in Kandahar province. He was the first to be court-martialed.

Morlock was accused of taking a lead role in the killings.

Asked by a military judge whether the plan was to shoot at people to scare them, or shoot to kill, Morlock replied: "The plan was to kill people."

Morlock was the first of the group to be court-martialed—something his lawyer Geoffrey Nathan characterized as an advantage.

"The first up gets the best deal," Nathan said by phone Tuesday, noting that even under the maximum sentence, Morlock would serve no more than eight years before becoming eligible for parole.

Under the plea deal, Morlock also has agreed to testify against his co-defendants.

Morlock told the judge, Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks, that he and his co-defendants first began plotting to murder unarmed Afghans in late 2009, several weeks before the first killing took place. To make the killings appear justified, the soldiers planned to plant weapons near the bodies of the victims, Morlock said.

"Did everybody know, `We're killing people who are completely innocent'?" the judge asked.

"Generally, yes, sir, everyone knew," Morlock replied.

Morlock told investigators the murder plot was led by Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs of Billings, Mont., who is also charged in the case; Gibbs maintains the killings were legitimate.

Morlock's mother and hockey coach were among the witnesses expected to testify Wednesday before the military judge who will determine the soldier's sentence. Morlock's lawyers previously indicated they would argue that a lack of leadership in the unit contributed to the killings.

"He's really a good kid. This is just a bad war at a bad time in our country's history," Nathan said Tuesday. "There was a lack of supervision, a lack of command control, the environment was terrible. In his mind, he had no choice."

Earlier this week, the German news organization Der Spiegel published three graphic photos showing Morlock and other soldiers posing with dead Afghans. One image features Morlock grinning as he lifts the head of a corpse by its hair.

Army officials had sought to strictly limit access to the photographs due to their sensitive nature. A spokesman for the magazine declined to tell The Associated Press how it had obtained the pictures, citing the need to protect its sources.

After the January killing, platoon member Spc. Adam Winfield of Cape Coral, Fla., sent Facebook messages to his parents saying that his fellow soldiers had murdered a civilian and were planning to kill more. Winfield said his colleagues warned him not to tell anyone.

Winfield's father alerted a staff sergeant at Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle, but no action was taken until May, when a witness in a drug investigation in the unit reported the deaths.

Winfield is accused of participating in the final murder. He admitted in a videotaped interview that he took part and said he feared the others might kill him if he didn't.

Also charged in the murders are Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes of Boise, Idaho, and Spc. Michael Wagnon II of Las Vegas, Nev.

Seven other soldiers in the platoon were charged with lesser crimes, including assaulting the witness in the drug investigation, drug use, firing on unarmed farmers and stabbing a corpse.

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