Two facts rang clear at a court-martial Thursday for a Stryker sergeant who led soldiers accused of murder and other misdeeds in Afghanistan last year.
First, Sgt. Darren Jones was on the scene when six soldiers pummeled the whistleblower whose complaints kicked off an Army investigation that ensnared Jones’ friends. And second, Jones joined his fellow soldiers in a shooting incident that prosecutors now regard as suspicious.
Soon, it will be up to a five-member jury panel at Joint Base Lewis-McChord to determine what compelled the 30-year-old infantryman to join a gang assault on a platoon mate, and whether Jones knew he was shooting at unarmed noncombatants during a March 2010 patrol.
Jones’ court-martial is expected to end today with closing arguments. His is the first of 12 related cases to make its way before a jury of enlisted soldiers and officers. Six of his platoon mates were accused of plotting alleged murders, while another five were accused of less serious misconduct.
So far, six completed cases have involved plea agreements or taken place before a lone judge.
Prosecutors allege Jones, of Pomona, Calif., was a key player in devising schemes to murder Afghan civilians during his deployment with the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
They argued that Jones was part of a clique of sergeants who initiated discussions about how to cover up killings of Afghan noncombatants with so-called “drop weapons.”
“These (NCOs) on a regular basis spoke about what the plans would be and how they would carry them out,” prosecutor Maj. Dre Leblanc argued in an opening statement at Jones’ court-martial.
Leblanc and other prosecutors argued that Jones participated in a group assault on then-Pfc. Justin Stoner to keep him from talking with investigators about misconduct after the private had complained about drug use at the base.
But defense attorney Kevin McDermott countered those charges, arguing the Army presented no evidence to prove that Jones was part of a plot to murder civilians. Jones didn’t have a role in any of the three killings that led to charges against five platoon mates, for example.
McDermott characterized the assault on Stoner as retaliation for Stoner’s perceived betrayal of his comrades. McDermott alleged Stoner’s leaders didn’t trust him because he had a poor attitude and disobeyed an order to fire a warning shot at an Afghan truck.
“It has everything to do with Pfc. Stoner as a soldier,” McDermott said.
Jones’ case represents the first opportunity for a jury panel to weigh testimony from admitted killer Pvt. Jeremy Morlock, who is the prosecution’s star witness. Morlock pleaded guilty to helping carry out three murders and agreed to testify against his codefendants.
Morlock told jurors that Jones joined in conversations about the murder scenarios beginning in November 2009.
McDermott challenged Morlock’s testimony, contending Morlock only offered up Jones’ name to get a better deal from prosecutors. He cited testimony from Pfc. Michael Lacroy, who said he overheard Morlock conspire to shift blame for his own actions to higher-ranking sergeants.
The Army contends the March 2010 shooting was an attempt to put one of the murder schemes into action, even though no one was hurt. Three witnesses who said a pair of Afghans standing in a field that day appeared harmless, yet the Stryker patrol still opened fire on them.
McDermott described the incident as a justified shooting because witnesses couldn’t say for sure if all of the soldiers had a clear view of the Afghans when they were ordered to fire.