The attorney for a Stryker soldier accused of concocting schemes to kill civilians in Afghanistan turned the charges on his accusers Tuesday, arguing that it's just as likely that his platoon mates were behind the crimes.
In a Joint Base Lewis-McChord court, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs’ attorney called those accusers “dope-smoking soldiers in a combat zone” who made unreliable statements to investigators when they painted Gibbs as the mastermind of plots to murder Afghans.
Prosecutors countered that the overwhelming weight of witness accounts describe Gibbs as the ringleader of a “kill team” at Forward Operating Base Ramrod in southern Afghanistan that murdered civilians for sport and kept trophies by cutting body parts from corpses.
“Sgt. Gibbs has natural leadership ability, but instead of doing good things with that ability, Gibbs wraps these soldiers into acts of unspeakable cruelty,” argued Army prosecutor Capt. Dre Leblanc.
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Eleven of Gibbs’ platoon mates from the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division await proceedings for alleged wrongdoing during their deployment. Five of them, including Gibbs, are accused of murder.
The hearing was Gibbs’ first public appearance since the Army charged him with war crimes in June. The broad-shouldered soldier from Billings, Mont., stood about a head above nearly everyone else in the courtroom. Gibbs’ wife, Chelsy, sat behind him in a row that also held his guards.
Gibbs, 25, spoke only to confirm that he understood the 16 crimes of which he is accused when Army investigating officer Col. Thomas Molloy detailed the charges. They include accusations that Gibbs participated in three murders, assaulted a fellow soldier, kept “off-the-books” weapons and violated a general order by holding on to body parts he allegedly collected from corpses.
The hearing concluded Tuesday evening. Molloy will now recommend whether Gibbs should face a full court-martial, but the final decision is up to Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, Lewis-McChord commanding general. That decision is expected within a few weeks.
Gibbs’ attorney, Phillip Stackhouse, needled the government’s case throughout the hearing. He pressed Molloy to compel Gibbs’ platoon mates to testify on the witness stand, but 15 of them invoked the 5th Amendment and refused to answer questions.
Nine of those who refused to testify are among Gibbs’ co-defendants. Six of those who declined to testify are not accused of crimes, but still said they didn’t want to give testimony that could be used against them at another time.
That group included Gibbs’ former platoon leader, Roman Ligsay, who has since been promoted from lieutenant to captain. Pfc. Justin Stoner, who blew the whistle on drug use in the platoon and said Gibbs led a gang assault on him, also declined to testify.
Stackhouse took particular aim at statements from Spc. Jeremy Morlock, who like Gibbs allegedly had a role in three murders that took place in January, February and May.
Morlock appeared before Molloy for an Article 32 hearing Sept. 27, and is headed to a full court-martial trial at a date to be determined.
Morlock told investigators in May that Gibbs orchestrated all three killings. He said Gibbs joined the platoon in November and soon afterward began describing how easy it would be to get away with killings in combat-like situations.
In January, Morlock said he carried out one of the scenarios with a grenade Gibbs gave him.
In February, Morlock said Gibbs shot an Afghan and planted an AK-47 on him as a drop weapon. In May, Morlock and Spc. Adam Winfield contend, Gibbs set up a killing in a compound and ordered them to a shoot an Afghan after Gibbs tossed a grenade at him.
Stackhouse charged that Morlock’s statements are the only eyewitness accounts the Army has of the first two killings.
“Aside from the statement of Morlock, there’s nothing to indicate that wasn’t a legitimate shoot,” Stackhouse said of the January killing.
Both Morlock and Winfield had told investigators that drug use was common in the platoon, and that they smoked hashish from time to time.
“Where does the credibility lie?” Stackhouse asked Molloy. “All of these soldiers who repeatedly smoke hash are all unreliable, and that’s what the government’s given you to make its case.”
For their part, attorneys for Morlock and Winfield argue that the soldiers were scared of Gibbs and participated in the shootings out of fear of retribution from the squad leader. Winfield also is accused of murder for the last killing.
Stackhouse argued that the Army doesn’t have physical evidence linking Gibbs’ to the murders, but two special agents testified that officers found severed fingers near Gibbs’ living quarters at his base.
Special agent Donna Trantham, meanwhile, said the witness statements she gathered and read appeared to corroborate each other.
“They paint a picture of Sgt. Gibbs when he arrives with this platoon in November 2009,” Leblanc said in summarizing the witness statements. “That’s when things started going south. That’s when people started getting killed, and that’s when Staff Sgt. Gibbs forms this team of junior soldiers and starts leading them down this dark path.”
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 firstname.lastname@example.org