JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. (AP/The Blaze) — A 22-year-old soldier accused of carrying out a plot to kill unarmed Afghan civilians pleaded guilty to murder and other charges Wednesday. case that has raised some of the most serious criminal allegations to come from the war in Afghanistan.
Spc. Jeremy Morlock, of Wasilla, Alaska, is the first of five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade charged in the 2010 killings of three Afghan men in Kandahar province and now faces a court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which is south of Seattle.
A copy of the plea agreement obtained by The Associated Press shows Morlock said the accused U.S soldiers deliberately slaughtered the civilians, knowing they posed no legitimate threat. Asked by a military judge whether the plan was to shoot at people to scare them, or shoot to kill, Morlock replied: "The plan was to kill people."
Morlock told the judge, Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks, that he and his co-defendants first began plotting to murder unarmed Afghans in late 2009, several weeks before the first killing took place. To make the killings appear justified, the soldiers planned to plant weapons near the bodies of the victims, Morlock said.
"Did everybody know, `We're killing people who are completely innocent'?" the judge asked.
"Generally, yes, sir, everyone knew," Morlock replied.
Morlock told investigators the murder plot was led by Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs of Billings, Mont., who is also charged in the case; Gibbs maintains the killings were legitimate.
Morlock's lawyer says his client has agreed to plead guilty to three counts of murder, one count of conspiracy and one drug charge in exchange for a maximum sentence of just 24 years in prison.
"The first up gets the best deal," attorney Geoffrey Nathan said Tuesday before the hearing, noting that even under the maximum sentence, Morlock would serve no more than eight years before becoming eligible for parole. Under the plea deal, Morlock has agreed to testify against his co-defendants. "He's really a good kid. This is just a bad war at a bad time in our country's history," he added. "There was a lack of supervision, a lack of command control, the environment was terrible. In his mind, he had no choice."
Earlier this week, the German news organization 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.
Army officials had sought to strictly limit access to the photographs due to their sensitive nature. A spokesman for the magazine declined to tell The Associated Press how it had obtained the pictures, citing the need to protect its sources.
After the January killing, platoon member Spc. Adam Winfield of Cape Coral, Fla., 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, south of Seattle, 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 of Boise, Idaho, and Spc. Michael Wagnon II of Las Vegas, Nev.
Seven other soldiers in the platoon face charges for lesser crimes, including assaulting the witness in the drug investigation, drug use, firing on unarmed farmers and stabbing a corpse.