The Stryker soldier who allegedly led a "kill team" that murdered three Afghan civilians last year will go to a general court-martial and could face life in prison, the Army announced Friday.
Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs of Billings, Mont., could have faced the death penalty, the highest punishment for murder under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commanding general at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, chose to limit the punishment – a decision that reflects reluctance in the military to pursue the death penalty for murder in a combat theater.
It also suggests that Gibbs’ three co-defendants facing murder charges likewise would not have capital punishment on the table if their cases proceed to courts-martial. A fourth, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, is already set for a court-martial and also faces life in prison.
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Gibbs has been described by a co-defendant’s attorney as “Manson-esque” for his ability to persuade others to join his misconduct. Gibbs also is accused of keeping fingers from Afghan corpses, possessing off-the-books weapons, assaulting a private and threatening fellow soldiers.
The 25-year-old denies the allegations and has called the murder charges “offensive.” He’s expected to be arraigned this month, but a court-martial date has not been set.
He’s the main target of an Army investigation that netted 12 soldiers in Lewis-McChord’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Two of them have pleaded guilty to misconduct and agreed to testify against Gibbs.
Scaparrotti elected to prosecute Gibbs for three murder charges even though an investigating officer suggested that the evidence was weak in one of the incidents.
Gibbs’ attorney, Philip Stackhouse, said the Army has not seen or heard much of Gibbs’ defense. Nearly all of the witnesses Stackhouse called at a November hearing refused to testify, citing the 5th Amendment. Some might agree with Gibbs that the incidents were legitimate combat engagements.
“The disappointing aspect is that we didn’t have an ability to face these individuals under oath at the time these charges were being considered,” Stackhouse said Friday.
Gibbs joined the platoon at Forward Operating Base Ramrod in November 2009 to replace a squad leader who had been injured in combat. His platoon mates later told investigators that he soon began talking about things he got away with during previous combat tours in Iraq and joking about how easy it would be to kill someone by tossing a grenade. The Army has since opened an investigation into Gibbs’ conduct in Iraq.
In January 2010, one of Gibbs’ murder scenarios allegedly unfolded on a patrol when Morlock tossed a grenade Gibbs gave him at an Afghan and ordered Pfc. Andrew Holmes to shoot. All three soldiers now face murder charges.
A month later, Gibbs allegedly isolated an Afghan during a patrol and planted evidence to make it appear as if the Afghan fired first. Morlock and Spc. Michael Wagnon are accused of murder with Gibbs for allegedly shooting at the Afghan and helping Gibbs cover up the incident.
In May, Gibbs allegedly threw a grenade at a noncombatant. Morlock and Spc. Adam Winfield are also charged with murder in that encounter. They allegedly shot at the Afghan after Gibbs suggested they kill him.
Gibbs said, “Let’s do this guy; this is perfect,” Winfield told investigators in May.
Key evidence against Gibbs comes from Morlock and Winfield. Prosecutors have described Morlock as Gibbs’ right-hand man. Stackhouse in November said in court that evidence could suggest Morlock was behind the murders and laying the blame on Gibbs.
A handful of soldiers who testified at hearings for Gibbs’ co-defendants have said they had a low opinion of Morlock but regarded Gibbs as a solid leader.
“As this case progresses, that divide will continue to develop,” Stackhouse said.