U.S. soldier pleads guilty to murdering Afghans

By Laura L. Myers

TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) – The first of five U.S. soldiers charged with killing unarmed Afghan civilians in cold blood last year pleaded guilty on Wednesday to three counts of premeditated murder and other offenses.

The guilty plea, entered by Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock at the beginning of his court-martial, marked a key turning point in the most serious prosecution of alleged U.S. military atrocities during 10 years of war in Afghanistan.

Morlock, 23, also has agreed to testify against others in his infantry unit who still face court-martial, which may help prosecutors swiftly bring remaining cases to a close and end an investigation that threatened to undermine the U.S. war effort.

The case was brought into grim relief this week when German magazine Der Spiegel published several photos related to the killings, one showing Morlock crouched grinning over a bloodied corpse as he lifted the dead man’s head by the hair for the camera.

The existence of such photos, among dozens seized as evidence by investigators and ordered sealed from public view by the Army, has drawn comparisons with pictures of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004.

In exchange for Morlock pleading guilty to murder, conspiracy and other charges, prosecutors have agreed he should serve no more than 24 years in prison instead of life if he were convicted in a trial.

Terms of the deal are subject to approval by a military judge, Lieutenant Colonel Kwasi Hawks, who questioned Morlock extensively about whether he understood the nature of the charges and the pleas entered on his behalf.

“Yes sir,” Morlock replied in a hushed voice to each query.

Wearing dress Army greens, Morlock also recounted his roles in the deaths of three unarmed Afghan villagers whose slayings by grenade blasts and rifle fire from Morlock and others in his unit were staged to appear as legitimate combat casualties.

“I knew what I was doing was wrong, sir,” he told the judge, adding that, contrary to previous suggestions by his lawyers, his judgment was not impaired by drugs.

Among those attending the hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, were Morlock’s mother, an uncle and a high school coach from Wasilla, Alaska.

Finalized in late January, the plea deal and accompanying admissions, or stipulations, to details of the crimes took five months to negotiate before Morlock signed them, according to Geoffrey Nathan, one of his civilian lawyers.

Morlock was the first of five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, charged with premeditated murder. Prosecutors have described him as the right-hand man to the accused ringleader of the rogue platoon, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs. They alone were charged with killing all three victims, whom Morlock testified were chosen at random by Gibbs.

Seven other members of the combat unit were charged with lesser crimes during the investigation, which grew out of a probe into hashish use by American GIs. Four of those men already have pleaded guilty and been sentenced.

Besides his alleged role in terrorizing civilians, Morlock was accused along with Gibbs of intimidating fellow soldiers by displaying severed fingers taken from Afghan war dead.

But photos such as the ones obtained and published by Der Spiegel have been regarded as particularly sensitive, and the military was clearly embarrassed that any managed to find their way into public view. In an apology issued on Monday, the Army said the images depict “actions repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values” of the military.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune)

U.S. soldier pleads guilty to murdering Afghans