US soldier who led Afghan killings jailed for life
Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, 26, the ringleader of a US army unit, admitted cutting and keeping fingers from corpses as war trophies, but said he was returning enemy fire and did not set out to kill.
He was given life for 15 convictions related to the killing of three men, but could be paroled within nine years.
Three co-defendants in the case pleaded guilty, and two testified against him.
Gibbs, from Billings, Montana, was the highest-ranking of the soldiers charged with murder.
Prosecutors told the jury that Gibbs and the other soldiers dropped weapons by the bodies to make them appear to be combatants.
Gibbs' lawyer argued that the three who pleaded guilty conspired to blame him for their own actions.
The jury of five deliberated for four hours before announcing the verdict, pronouncing him guilty on all 15 charges against him. He faces life in prison, either with or without parole.
The military panel found Gibbs guilty at the end of a week-long court martial on Thursday, and said he should serve at least 10 years behind bars before being eligible for parole.
Gibbs was convicted on 15 counts in all, including three of premeditated murder for his role in three killings in southern Kandahar province between January and May last year.
The prosecution portrayed Gibbs as the leader of the rogue unit, which also harvested body parts from the victims as macabre war trophies.
Three members of the unit had already plead guilty in a scandal that has threatened embarrassment for the US military on the scale of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse in Iraq, a scandal exposed in 2004.
Each of the murder convictions carried a minimum life sentence and the prosecution said Gibbs should be refused parole, turning the disgraced soldier's description of the Afghan civilians as "savages" back on him.
"There is the savage," said Major Dre LeBlanc, pointing at Gibbs. "Sergeant Gibbs is the savage."
But for the defence, attorney Phil Stackhouse asked that the jury bear in mind Gibbs' wife Chelsy and young son Calvin Jr when considering a sentence, noting that Gibbs received credit for 547 days of time served.
In closing arguments on Wednesday, prosecutor Major Robert Stelle dismissed Gibbs's claims that he was responding to legitimate attack when the team killed the Afghans.
"This is a case about betrayal, the ultimate betrayal. (Gibbs) betrayed his folk, he betrayed his unit, and with the flag of his nation emblazoned across his chest, thousands of miles from home, he betrayed his nation," Stelle said.
He was accused of setting up the killings, planting weapons on the dead civilians' bodies to make it look like they were fighters, and then removing fingers and teeth to show off to colleagues.
The investigation into the 5th Stryker Brigade unit exposed widespread misconduct—a platoon that was "out of control," in the words of a prosecutor, Maj. Robert Stelle. The wrongdoing included hash-smoking, the collection of illicit weapons, the mutilation and photography of Afghan remains, and the gang-beating of a soldier who reported the drug use.
In all, 12 soldiers were charged; all but two have now been convicted.
The probe also raised questions about the brigade's permissive leadership culture and the Army's mechanisms for reporting misconduct.
After the first killing, one soldier, then-Spc. Adam Winfield, alerted his parents and told them more killings were planned, but his father's call to a sergeant at Lewis-McChord relaying the warning went unheeded. Winfield later pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the last killing, saying he took part because he believed Gibbs would kill him if he didn't.
The case against Gibbs relied heavily on testimony from former Spc. Jeremy Morlock, of Wasilla, Alaska, who is serving 24 years after admitting his involvement in all three killings.
According to Morlock, Gibbs gave him an "off-the-books" grenade that Morlock and Pfc. Andrew Holmes, of Boise, Idaho, used in the first killing—a teenager in a field—in January 2010.
The next month, Morlock said, Gibbs killed the second victim with Spc. Michael Wagnon, of Las Vegas, and tossed an AK-47 at the man's feet to make him appear to have been an enemy fighter. Morlock and Winfield said that during the third killing, in May, Gibbs threw a grenade at the victim as he ordered them to shoot.
Morlock and others told investigators that soon after Gibbs joined the unit in 2010, he began talking about how easy it would be to kill civilians, and discussed scenarios where they might carry out such murders.
Asked why soldiers might have agreed to go along with it, Morlock testified that the brigade had trained for deployment to Iraq before having their orders shifted at the last minute to Afghanistan.
The infantrymen wanted action and firefights, he testified, but instead they found themselves carrying out a more humanitarian counter-insurgency strategy that involved meetings and handshaking.
Another soldier, Staff Sgt. Robert Stevens, who at the time was a close friend of Gibbs, told investigators that in March 2010, he and others followed orders from Gibbs to fire on two unarmed farmers in a field; no one was injured. Gibbs claimed one was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, but that was obviously false, Stevens said.
Stevens also testified that Gibbs bragged to him about the second killing, admitting he planted an AK-47 on the victim's body because he suspected the man of involvement with the Taliban, according to a report on the testimony in The News Tribune newspaper of Tacoma.
But during the trial, Gibbs insisted he came under fire.
"I was engaged by an enemy combatant," he said. "Luckily his weapon appeared to malfunction and I didn't die."
Gibbs testified that he wasn't proud about having removed fingers from the bodies of the victims, but said he tried to disassociate the corpses from the humans they had been as a means of coming to terms with the things soldiers are asked to do in battle.
The muscular 6-foot-4 staff sergeant also testified that he did it because other soldiers wanted the trophies, and he agreed in part because he didn't want his subordinates to think he was a wimp.
Gibbs initially faced 16 charges, but one was dropped during the trial.
Download “Pajhwok” mobile App, on your smartphone to read and access latest news, features, interviews, videos and photos about Afghanistan.