JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — A U.S. soldier who pleaded guilty in the killings of three Afghan civilians has agreed to testify against four others whom he says were co-conspirators in a case that has raised some of the most serious criminal allegations to come from the Afghanistan War.
Spc. Jeremy Morlock, who was accused of taking a leading role in the killings last year, was sentenced to 24 years in prison Wednesday, the maximum sentence under a plea deal that also calls for him to testify against his co-defendants. He pleaded guilty hours before his sentencing to three counts of murder, and one count each of conspiracy, obstructing justice and illegal drug use.
His voice shaking at times, Morlock told a judge he had a lot of time to reflect on his actions in Afghanistan and ask himself "how I could become so insensitive and how I lost my moral compass."
"I don't know if I will ever be able to answer those questions," he said, adding that he believes he "wasn't fully prepared for the reality of war as it was being fought in Afghanistan."
Morlock, of Wasilla, Alaska, was the first of five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade to be court-martialed — something his lawyer Geoffrey Nathan characterized as an advantage.
Army prosecutor Capt. Andre Leblanc characterized the crimes as acts of "unspeakable cruelty" by "a few extraordinarily misguided men."
"We don't do this. This is not how we're trained. This is not the Army," Leblanc said during his closing statement Wednesday.
Morlock told military judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks that he and the other soldiers first began plotting to murder unarmed Afghans in late 2009, several weeks before the first killing took place in January 2010 in Kandahar province. Two others were killed the following February and May.
Morlock told investigators the murder plot was led by Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, of Billings, Mont., who is charged in the case and maintains the killings were justified.
To make the killings appear justified, the soldiers planned to plant weapons near the bodies of the victims, Morlock said.
During questioning by the judge Wednesday, Morlock said he had second thoughts about the plot while home on leave in March 2010, after the first two killings took place, adding that he no longer wanted to "engage or be part of anything" like those that already had occurred.
But he didn't voice his doubts to his fellow soldiers when he returned, and he went on to participate in the third killing in May, he said.
Asked whether the plan was to shoot at people to scare them, or to shoot to kill, Morlock told the judge, "The plan was to kill people."
Earlier this week, the German news magazine Der Spiegel published three graphic photos showing Morlock and other soldiers posing with dead Afghans. One image features Morlock grinning as he lifts the head of a corpse by its hair.
Military judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks said he initially intended to sentence Morlock to life in prison with possibility of parole but was bound by the plea deal.
The soldier will receive just less than two weeks short of a year off his sentence for time already served. He could be eligible for parole in about seven years, said his lead attorney, Frank Spinner.
He will be dishonorably discharged as part of his sentence.
Spinner speculated that "morale problems and discipline problems" in Morlock's brigade created an environment that contributed to the killings — an argument the defense presented in court through the testimony of sociologist and war crimes expert Stjepan Mestrovic.
In a statement Spinner read to reporters after sentencing, Morlock apologized for the pain he caused his victims' families and the people of Afghanistan. He also asked for forgiveness from his fellow soldiers.
Responding to criticism that 24 years was too light a sentence for three murders, Spinner pointed to Morlock's willingness to take responsibility for his actions and testify against his co-defendants.
"He realized coming into court today the 'why's' were not that important. He's taking responsibility," Spinner said.
After the January killing, platoon member Spc. Adam Winfield sent Facebook messages to his parents saying that his fellow soldiers had murdered a civilian and were planning to kill more. Winfield said his colleagues warned him not to tell anyone.
Winfield's father alerted a staff sergeant at Lewis-McChord but no action was taken until May, when a witness in a drug investigation in the unit reported the deaths.
Winfield is accused of participating in the final murder. He admitted in a videotaped interview that he took part and said he feared the others might kill him if he didn't.
Also charged in the murders are Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes and Spc. Michael Wagnon II.
Seven other soldiers in the platoon were charged with lesser crimes, including assaulting the witness in the drug investigation, drug use, firing on unarmed farmers and stabbing a corpse.
In addition, Morlock admitted to smoking hashish while stationed in Afghanistan, though he said he was not under the influence of the drug at the time of the killings. He also admitted to being one of six soldiers who assaulted a fellow platoon member after that man reported the drug use going on in the platoon.