When a Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier pleaded guilty last week to murdering three Afghans, he couldn't say for sure if he'd actually killed anyone.
In fact, Spc. Jeremy Morlock said some of his platoon mates in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division likely delivered the shots that took the civilians’ lives in southern Afghanistan last year. He said he was responsible because he joined in planning the combat-like scenarios.
Morlock’s descriptions of the murders will be important testimony to four of his platoon mates who await courts martial on charges that they participated in the killings. Morlock, 23, struck a plea deal that requires him to take the witness stand at their trials.
Some of his codefendants’ attorneys have been hammering the Army for months for not producing evidence showing which soldiers fired the fatal shots. They argue the soldiers can’t be convicted of murder if they didn’t kill someone.
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“There is no physical evidence here,” attorney Dan Conway said at a pretrial hearing in November for one of Morlock’s codefendants, Pfc. Andrew Holmes, 20, of Boise, Idaho. “It’s absolutely breathtaking that this is a premeditated murder case.”
A January 2010 killing Morlock described in court Wednesday illustrated the uncertainty over whose weapons were responsible for which deaths.
That incident became the ugly face of the alleged war crimes committed by Morlock and his comrades when a German newsmagazine last week published photos of the victim. One image shows Morlock grinning as he holds up the Afghan’s head; another shows Holmes kneeling over the corpse.
Morlock said the killing played out when he spotted an Afghan in a field approaching him and Holmes. Morlock said he told the man to halt about 20 meters from them while he and Holmes agreed to kill him in a scenario they’d devised earlier with Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs. Gibbs was a squad leader in their platoon and is the main target of the Army’s war crimes investigation.
Morlock said he tossed a grenade over a wall near them to make it appear as if the Afghan attacked him and Holmes. He ordered Holmes to shoot the man with a burst of gunfire from the squad automatic weapon he carried. That gun fires more rapidly than the rifles most infantrymen carry, and it can shoot as many as 1,000 rounds per minute.
After the grenade exploded, Morlock said he shot the Afghan, too.
“He was laying on the ground, dead presumably” when he shot, Morlock said in court.
Other infantrymen in his platoon gathered at the shooting scene. Capt. Patrick Mitchell asked the soldiers to make sure the Afghan was dead, according to sworn statements and court testimony. Staff Sgt. Kris Sprague interpreted that order as a directive to shoot the Afghan twice more, Morlock said.
Sprague was not charged with a crime for shooting the Afghan, and no one else alleged that he knew the killing was staged.
Morlock told the Army judge, Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks, that he believed Holmes’ weapon killed the Afghan.
“I could only assume that a burst from an automatic weapon and a relatively close position of a fragmentary grenade going off, that that would be the end result,” Morlock told the judge.
Holmes has denied he knowingly participated in a staged killing, and his attorney has said Morlock’s or Sprague’s weapons killed the Afghan.
Conway says the photos of the victim – including the ones published last week – are proof that the Afghan was not hit with Holmes’ weapon. If it had been Holmes’ gun, the body would have shown many more wounds, the attorney said. Instead, it appears to show just one or two bullet wounds.
“When you look at the photo ... there’s only one bullet hole – where Sprague shot,” Conway said in court last fall when he submitted another image of the victim to an Army officer.
Conway unsuccessfully pushed the Army to release the images before the end of Holmes’ pretrial hearing in November. The Army denied his request and the photos reached the public when Der Spiegel magazine obtained them from a source.
Similar to the January incident, Morlock’s account of a May 2010 murder left room for attorneys to argue which of three soldiers killed another Afghan.
Morlock said Gibbs set up the victim on one end of a compound in a village. Gibbs was supposed to throw a grenade while Morlock and Spc. Adam Winfield were supposed to shoot the Afghan. Then Gibbs would plant a Russian-made grenade on the victim to make it appear as if he was attacking Americans.
Instead, Morlock said Gibbs threw the grenade too close to the victim and likely killed him. He and Winfield fired their rifles, but Morlock wasn’t sure if their bullets hit the victim. Morlock said Gibbs shot the Afghan twice more after the explosion.
Gibbs maintains that all three killings were legitimate combat incidents. He’s expected to face a court martial this summer.
Winfield has acknowledged that the May killing was staged, but he argues that he shot high to miss the victim. He contends he was scared to disagree with Gibbs because Gibbs had threatened him in the past. He’s also in line for a court martial in the next few months.
The Army contends all of the soldiers share responsibility for the deaths, regardless of whether their bullets killed the men, because they participated in the scenarios.
“If it’s not Pfc. Holmes’ bullets that actually killed this individual, if it’s a grenade, or an M4 or a (squad automatic weapon), he’s still liable,” prosecutor Capt. Dan Mazzone said at one of Holmes’ hearings.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/military