The first public hearing involving charges that five soldiers gunned down Afghan civilians for sport concluded Monday, with witnesses and lawyers describing widespread fear of the sergeant who has been described as the ringleader of the slayings.
That sergeant is Calvin Gibbs. Though the hearing was held to determine whether Spc. Jeremy Morlock, 22, of Wasilla, Alaska, will face a court-martial on murder charges, the testimony and court documents focused attention on Gibbs.
Prosecutors say Morlock was the right-hand man of Gibbs, who they say directed his troops on how to handle the killings. Prosecutors said he and some of the soldiers kept fingers and other body parts as souvenirs and were photographed posing with Afghan corpses.
Army officials have prevented those photos from being distributed to civilian lawyers, fearing they could be more widely disseminated and inflame Afghan public opinion.
Murder charges have been filed against Morlock, Gibbs and three other soldiers. If convicted, they could face the death penalty. All have denied the charges.
The 2nd Stryker Brigade, known as the 5th Stryker Brigade at the time of the killings, was posted to a tumultuous stretch of southern Afghanistan when Gibbs came aboard in December 2009. In statements to investigators, soldiers said the new sergeant pushed them to attack civilians.
“Everybody in the unit was threatened, from the beginning of this to the end, that if they were not on board, if they were a snitch …they’d get what’s coming to them,” said Michael Waddington, Morlock’s lawyer. “Everybody in the platoon, as you see, is implicated in the crimes…. Many of those people were just along for the ride.”
Gibbs’ lawyer has denied the allegations.
In January, according to testimony Monday, Morlock and another soldier watched a civilian walk toward them on the other side of a low-lying wall. Following directions from Gibbs, Morlock dropped a grenade over the wall, and the other soldier opened fire. The man was killed.
After the incident, another soldier in the unit, Spc. Adam Winfield, sent his family a frantic message for help via Facebook. In a later telephone conversation, he told them, “Someone is getting away with murder,” his mother, Emma Winfield, said in a telephone interview. Winfield said he was fearful of Gibbs and had been threatened against speaking out.
Winfield’s father, a former Marine, called the Army’s internal investigations unit to report the killing. But he has said publicly that he was rebuffed and told that his son’s best chance at surviving was to stay quiet until he returned to the U.S.
Weeks later, according to Morlock’s statement to investigators, Gibbs gunned down a second Afghan civilian and tossed an AK-47 next to the corpse. He ordered Morlock and another soldier to fire as well to make it appear there had been a shootout.
“He said this was part of the plan to make this more concrete and more believable and to let Staff Sgt. Gibbs know who was on board,” said Army Special Agent Shannon B. Richey, who interviewed Morlock about the incident.
In May, Gibbs’ unit arrived at a village sympathetic to the Taliban. Gibbs tossed a grenade at one civilian and told Morlock and Winfield to fire at the man, according to statements from the two soldiers read in court. The Afghan died. Morlock told the lieutenant on the scene that the man had tried to throw a grenade at the Americans.
Days later, members of the platoon beat a soldier who they believed was reporting on them for widespread use of hashish, authorities said. Gibbs and Morlock allegedly waved severed fingers at the soldier to threaten him. Military police alerted the Army’s criminal investigations unit.
Shortly after the beating, Morlock was to be flown to Germany for medical treatment for brain injuries, but Army investigators intercepted him at a base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Investigators testified that Morlock told them he wanted to talk but feared for his safety if Gibbs found out. Morlock eventually gave a lengthy statement and returned for follow-up interviews, investigators said.
Winfield’s parents said it was outrageous that their son, the soldier who tried to blow the whistle, faced murder charges. “I can’t comprehend how he was charged with this when he was the only one who tried to do anything,” Emma Winfield said.
Seven other soldiers face hashish charges. Of the 18 military witnesses listed in Monday’s hearing, 14 — including the lieutenant who was the platoon’s commander — refused to testify, citing their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Waddington said his client, Morlock, initially requested a lawyer but was rebuffed — a suggestion denied by Army investigators. He also argued that Morlock’s statements to Army investigators should be disregarded because he was on numerous prescription medications to treat brain injuries. Army Special Agent Anderson D. Wagner, testifying by phone from Afghanistan, said that Morlock appeared coherent during the interviews.
Waddington also contended that Morlock did not directly kill anyone, saying that in all three of the incidents the fatal act appeared to have been committed by someone else. “He did not cause the death of any of these individuals,” Waddington told reporters outside court.
A decision by a military judge on whether to hold a court-martial for Morlock is not expected for weeks.
Wagner acknowledged that investigators had not examined the bodies of the civilians and could not say who fired the fatal shot in each case. “If this was the United States, it’s a no-brainer, it’s easy,” Wagner said. But in Afghanistan, “to exhume a body would cause a lot of issues. Even if it’s for a good purpose, like we’re trying to determine who killed your son or husband, for religious reasons it could cause an uproar.”
Only if top commanders decide the case merits the risk of unearthing the bodies, Wagner said, would they be recovered.