The Army’s “kill team” investigation at Joint Base Lewis-McChord is in its home stretch, and attorneys on both sides are calculating whom they can count on to give believable testimony at some of the most watched war crimes courts-martial since Abu Ghraib.
Prosecutors are working with a consultant to help evaluate witnesses for the court-martial of alleged murderer Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs. Defense attorneys are crowing over a string of reports that challenge the credibility of killer-turned-star witness Pvt. Jeremy Morlock, even as they prepare for testimony from Spc. Adam Winfield, the latest defendant to take a plea agreement.
In the balance are three soldiers who could go to prison for life without parole if convicted of murdering Afghan civilians for kicks. Another soldier faces more than 20 years in prison on charges that he beat up detainees and solicited a subordinate to murder an Afghan.
Three of the accused soldiers have been in confinement for more than a year since the investigation started in May 2010 in southern Afghanistan. Other soldiers from the platoon in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division have their lives on hold because the Army has ordered them to remain available for court hearings.
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“It’s just been such a roller coaster these last 15 months,” said Dana Holmes of Boise. Her son Pfc. Andrew Holmes is accused of murdering an Afghan during a January 2010 patrol. He’s expected to have his court-martial in mid-September.
Dana Holmes has made the trip from Boise to the base south of Tacoma several times this summer to watch pretrial hearings for her son, Gibbs and another co-defendant. She came away critical of Morlock, the soldier who claims Andrew Holmes joined him in carrying out a plot to murder a civilian in a combat-like scenario. Andrew Holmes says he’s innocent.
“I’m sure at some point in all of his testimony (Morlock’s) told the truth,” Dana Holmes said. “He’s told so many different stories that it’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s not.”
The Holmes family has a stake in viewing Morlock as a liar, but they’re not the only ones who have lately expressed serious doubts about the native of Wasilla, Alaska.
Morlock shaped the Army’s understanding of the case last year by opening up about murders he says he committed under Gibbs’ direction, painting a picture of a rogue platoon with easy access to hashish and a penchant for photographing its victims.
Morlock in March received a 24-year prison sentence after he pleaded guilty to three murders and agreed to testify against his co-defendants.
A five-soldier jury panel first saw Morlock testify in July for the case of Sgt. Darren Jones, a California soldier who was accused of conspiring to harm Afghans, shooting at civilians and assaulting a private.
The jury found Jones not guilty of the crimes Morlock described, giving the Army a mixed verdict in his case. Jones is spending seven months in prison for beating up a private.
Meanwhile, two Army investigators – both Army majors – who watched Morlock testify this summer were not convinced by his accounts. Their impressions of Morlock give a window into how a military jury might respond to him.
“Pvt. Morlock’s inconsistent testimony, sworn statements and videotaped testimony make it difficult to distinguish what is true or false in this case,” Maj. Michael Liles wrote in a July review of the Army’s case against “kill team” defendant Spc. Michael Wagnon.
Another investigator, Maj. John Tincher, recommended the Army scale back the charges it leveled against Staff Sgt. David Bram. Morlock claimed Bram was involved in discussions about murdering civilians and that Bram had planned to have a subordinate join him in one of their schemes.
In spite of Morlock’s testimony, Tincher wrote that there were “no reasonable grounds to believe” that Bram was involved in talks about murdering civilians.
Prospects started to look even better for defense attorneys when Morlock and another key witness revealed serious flaws at recent pretrial hearings.
Last month, Morlock and Spc. Emmitt Quintal admitted using drugs together even after they were detained in Afghanistan and after giving sworn statements to Army investigators. Quintal has pleaded guilty to using drugs during his deployment and to assaulting a fellow soldier.
They said they smoked hashish with Winfield, the “kill team” defendant who on Monday reached an agreement that will require him to testify at upcoming courts-martial.
Morlock also disclosed that he’s been requesting investigative documents and transcripts from court proceedings for the cases in which he expects to testify. Prosecutors have been giving him the documents, and Morlock has said on the witness stand that they help him remember events from Afghanistan.
“I was wondering how can you make Morlock any less credible,” said Colby Vokey, the defense attorney for Spc. Michael Wagnon, another of the murder defendants. “It would be giving him copies of transcripts and having prosecutors tell him what to say.”
Defense witnesses have their own challenges, such as giving the impression that they’re withholding information in court to protect buddies they trusted in combat. Seven of those witnesses already have been convicted of misconduct related to the “kill team” allegations.
In court, some defense witnesses have gone out of their way to support each other. It’s common to see them winking at defendants, hugging after verdicts or patting a friend’s back on the way to the witness stand.
On hearing days, witnesses pack into a small room furnished with hard chairs, a few magazines and an old television. Sometimes they tinker with their mobile phones; other times they appear to be struggling to cope with the possibility that they’ll leave the Army with felony convictions on their records and no military benefits.
“Lives are being destroyed by this,” Dana Holmes said. “Marriages have been destroyed. Relationships have been destroyed. Financially, this has destroyed everybody.”
Some witnesses who acknowledge being aware of drug use and other misconduct in their platoon lay most of the blame on Morlock. That surprised Vokey, who had been preparing to defend Wagnon by buying into the Army’s thesis that Gibbs initiated the killings and compelled other soldiers to join him.
“I’m fine with having some psychopathic killer where I can point a finger at and blame him,” Vokey said. “But every person I’m talking to says Gibbs is not a monster. It’s all coming from Morlock, Winfield and Quintal. Everybody else is saying (Gibbs) is a good guy, competent.”
More information could still come out next month that would help the Army put away the soldiers it most wants to convict. So far, prosecutors have to show only that they have enough evidence to justify putting the remaining defendants on trial.