An Army appeals court has granted a hearing for a former Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier who was sentenced to life in prison for masterminding the murders of three young Afghan civilians in early 2010.
New evidence from two of Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs’ fellow soldiers supports his description of at least one of the killings as a legitimate combat engagement, Gibbs’ attorney said.
Phil Stackhouse, the defense attorney, wants to use those statements to challenge some of the most compelling testimony from other young soldiers who cast Gibbs as a Charles Manson-like figure at a remote outpost in southern Afghanistan.
The March 4 hearing at the Army Court of Criminal Appeals will revisit a dark chapter of the Afghanistan war when a group of Stryker soldiers concocted schemes to slay innocent people during their patrols in Kandahar province. They became known around the world as the “kill team” when photos of them posing with Afghan corpses were published in international media.
Twelve soldiers came home from that deployment with JBLM’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division accused of criminal wrongdoing that ranged from smoking marijuana at their base to murder and stashing “off the books” weapons to plant on dead Afghans. Four soldiers were convicted of participating in the killings.
Gibbs received the most severe sentence. His right-hand-man-turned-government-witness, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, received a 24-year sentence. Both are now in confinement at the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Throughout 18 months of court hearings in 2010 and 2011, soldiers who cooperated with the government blamed Gibbs for the slayings, while those who fought charges described Morlock as the reckless soldier who initiated illegitimate killings.
Stackhouse said the upcoming hearing will center on contrasting views of the second of three killings.
In that incident, Gibbs maintained in court that he shot at an Afghan who had fired on him first. Gibbs said he killed the man when the Afghan’s weapon jammed. Gibbs cut a finger from the man’s body.
“I was pretty pissed off at the guy and I thought I’d take the finger he tried to kill me with,” Gibbs testified at his court-martial.
Another soldier also shot the Afghan with an automatic weapon. The Army accused that soldier of murder but dropped charges against him after Gibbs’ conviction. The other soldier has since given a statement to attorneys that backs up Gibbs’ account of coming under fire.
One more soldier from their platoon also came forward after Gibbs’ conviction to give Stackhouse another statement supporting Gibbs’ account.
A military jury found Gibbs guilty of murder in that slaying and in two others.
Morlock testified that Gibbs planned the February killing and planted an AK-47 on the victim to make it appear that the Afghan had shot first.
Similarly, Morlock contended that Gibbs set a January 2010 killing in motion by handing an “off the books” grenade to Morlock and describing a scenario in which a soldier could use the weapon to fake a combat engagement. Morlock used the grenade to kill 15-year-old Gul Mudin, who was also shot by then-Pfc. Andrew Holmes.
The last killing took place in May 2010. Morlock and then-Spc. Adam Winfield testified that Gibbs tossed a grenade at an innocent Afghan. Morlock and Winfield also shot at the young man to follow through on a scheme Gibbs proposed.
A handful of other soldiers at Gibbs’ court-martial testified that they were aware that Gibbs and Morlock had devised schemes to kill civilians in combat-like engagements. Aside from Winfield, who told his Marine-veteran father about the killings, no one raised an alarm about the shootings to commanders or outsiders.
Gibbs and Morlock are the only “kill team” participants still in prison. The Army Court of Criminal Appeal in 2014 overturned one of Morlock’s three convictions for murder, but upheld his sentence.
A military jury in November 2011 convicted Gibbs on 15 criminal counts. In addition to the three murder charges, he was convicted on charges that he conspired to kill innocents, assaulted a junior-ranking soldier who threatened to tell commanders about misconduct at their forward base, kept body parts from corpses and illegally possessed “off the books” weapons.
Gibbs at this court-martial admitted to much of the lesser misconduct, including keeping body parts from Afghan corpses.
As a veteran of deployments to Iraq, he testified that he was trying to look tough for junior soldiers on their first combat missions. He said that each of the killings was a legitimate combat engagement as far as he knew at the time.
“At the time I was numb to the situation trying not to get emotional about engagements,” Gibbs said in court. “I did wrong.”