Few soldiers have clean hands in the Army’s case against alleged “kill team” ringleader Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs.
The witnesses against the Stryker soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord make up a lineup of admitted war criminals and leaders who looked the other way as offenses unfolded during patrols in Afghanistan.
The Army prosecutor acknowledged as much at the start of Gibbs’ court-martial last week.
“Choir boys and angels don’t commit crimes like these,” Capt. Dan Mazzone said.
Gibbs could go to jail for life if convicted on any of three charges he faces alleging he murdered noncombatants during his deployment last year. The Army leveled 13 other charges against him for allegedly keeping fingers from corpses and threatening his own soldiers.
His trial is expected to resume Tuesday with more witnesses testifying in Gibbs’ defense. It could end later this week.
Prosecutors are making their case by tapping Gibbs’ alleged co-conspirators. They’ve helped the Army build a broad arc of evidence targeting the sergeant from Montana as a war trophy-seeking killer who showed little regard for Afghan civilians and inspired the same attitude in the soldiers he led.
“At the end of the day, they’re all going to corroborate the core facts that are central to this prosecution,” Mazzone said Monday.
But that strategy opened the Army’s witnesses to four days of critical questioning from Gibbs’ defense attorney. He highlighted shifting stories about the crimes and drew attention to deals that suspects cut in exchange for lighter punishment.
Gibbs, 26, took the stand Friday and demonstrated a sharply better memory than his accusers. He contends he’s being framed by reckless soldiers who want to cover up unjustified killings they committed.
He denied staging killings or even suggesting it would be acceptable to murder civilians.
He did not resemble the intimidating staff sergeant who allegedly referred to Afghans as “dirty savages” during his deployment.
Gibbs wore a too-small dress coat that made his shoulders appear like they were about to pop out of the jacket. He testified nervously but earnestly, saying he took war trophies but did not murder anyone.
“At the time I was numb to the situation, trying not to get emotional about engagements,” Gibbs said. “I did wrong.”
Earlier in the week, the gaps and inconsistencies that Gibbs’ attorney drew out from key witnesses included:
• One witness with 12 years of military experience admitted he was embarrassed that he missed rampant drug use among soldiers he commanded. Staff Sgt. Kris Sprague was in charge of then-Spc. Jeremy Morlock, an admitted murderer and witness against Gibbs who by many accounts was the most reckless soldier in the platoon.
Sprague couldn’t remember which soldiers were on patrols with him during major events when he believed his unit was attacked.
• Another witness struggled to explain differences in accounts of Gibbs’ crimes that he’d offered to prosecutors while seeking a plea deal. That witness, Spc. Adam Winfield, was given a three-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter instead of the punishment of life in prison he faced when he was charged with murder.
Winfield was tripped up over details of which kinds of narcotics he admitted using during his deployment and in a discrepancy over how he remembered the May 2010 killing he says he carried out with Gibbs.
• The Army’s star witness was exposed as a frenetic soldier who disparaged Afghan civilians and craved enemy contact. Jurors saw photographs of Morlock, the admitted “kill team” participant, while he got high at his base in Kandahar province.
They watched Morlock in personal videos he filmed making fun of Afghans and declaring he was “bored, bored, bored.” Morlock called every Afghan he saw “Taliban, for sure” and scoffed at Army efforts to win over civilians.
One video showed him walking around with free rein as his platoon leader met with a village elder in Taliban territory. Morlock insulted the platoon leader on camera, too.
Morlock could do “whatever he wants,” defense attorney Phil Stackhouse said, suggesting that the soldier’s autonomy gave him time to plot and murder Afghan civilians without Gibbs’ help.
Stackhouse wants jurors to believe that Morlock and Winfield shifted blame for their crimes to Gibbs. His witness list includes a private who has claimed he overheard Morlock and Winfield make that pact after they were arrested for the Army’s “kill team” investigation.
Morlock and Winfield have acknowledged they smoked hashish together nearly every day during their deployment, suggesting they had a tight relationship and that their perceptions of their platoonmates were clouded by drug use.
Mazzone’s early “choir boys and angels” acknowledgement laid a foundation for jurors to understand that the Army’s best witnesses were soldiers who were closest to the crimes.
The Army already has convicted nine soldiers from Gibbs’ platoon for crimes they committed after he joined them midway through their deployment. Seven of them testified against Gibbs, as did the whistleblower who kicked off the Army’s investigation into the platoon.
Despite their flaws, they have depicted Gibbs as a soldier who felt out his peers about whether they would join him in killing civilians and bragged about his own unjustified engagements with noncombatants.
The Army’s last witness, whistleblower Spc. Justin Stoner, struck one of the most disturbing depictions of Gibbs over the past week. Stoner said he believed Gibbs would kill him if he talked with officers about misconduct in the platoon. Gibbs followed up the threat by displaying a pair of severed human fingers, Stoner said.
“I took it quite literally,” the whistleblower testified. “I assumed with all the events that happened prior – saying they wanted to eradicate you – it wouldn’t be all that hard.”
Stoner overcame his fears about Gibbs and talked with Army officers last year about misconduct in his platoon. His testimony last week underscored the prosecution’s message that Gibbs in Afghanistan was not the stand-up soldier he appeared to be in court.