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Soldier in Army war-crimes case signs plea deal in killings of Afghan civilians

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 6:54 PM

A key defendant in an Army war-crimes investigation into the grisly killings of unarmed Afghan civilians has signed a plea deal with military prosecutors and agreed to testify against other accused soldiers, according to Army officials and a source close to the case.

Spec. Jeremy N. Morlock, a member of the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, agreed to a deal this week that calls for him to serve a maximum of 24 years in prison and testify against as many as 10 other defendants, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because terms of the agreement have not been made public.

An Army spokesman, Maj. Christopher D. Ophardt, confirmed Wednesday that prosecutors had reached a plea deal with Morlock. He said the deal would be reviewed by a military judge at Morlock's court-martial, which has been tentatively scheduled for late next month at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash. The base is the home of Morlock's unit.

Under military rules of justice, Morlock and his attorneys can ask the judge at the court-martial to reduce his prison sentence to less than 24 years. Morlock has been charged with three counts of murder, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and assaulting another soldier.

Four other members of Morlock's platoon have also been charged with murder in perhaps the gravest war-crime allegations to emerge from the nine-year-old Afghanistan conflict. Military prosecutors have charged the soldiers with randomly targeting and killing three unarmed Afghan men, apparently for sport, and hoarding body parts from their victims.

The crimes allegedly took place over a four-month period last year in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan.

Morlock, of Wasilla, Alaska, gave a lengthy videotaped statement to Army criminal investigators in May in which he confessed to involvement in the killings and implicated several other members of the platoon. His attorneys had previously asked a military judge to toss out the confession, arguing that he was under the influence of hashish and opium, as well as medication for a head injury he had sustained while serving in Afghanistan.

Morlock defense attorney Frank Spinner did not return several phone messages seeking comment Wednesday.

Prosecutors have been under pressure to strike a plea deal because they lack forensic evidence, including the bodies of the victims and the alleged murder weapons. Their case has been largely dependent on Morlock's videotaped statement and a statement by another defendant, Spec. Christopher Winfield. An attorney for Winfield said Wednesday that his client has been unable so far to reach a deal with prosecutors.

Both Morlock and Winfield have pinned primary blame for the killings on the platoon's staff sergeant, Calvin R. Gibbs of Billings, Mont., describing him as the ringleader who organized a "kill team" of soldiers and carved fingers off his dead victims.

Army officials have said platoon members also took numerous photographs of themselves posing next to the dead Afghans. The photographs have not been made public, and Army officials worry that they could inflame Afghans against the war.

Gibbs has been charged with three counts of murder. His court-martial has been scheduled for April 4, Army officials said.

Gibbs has denied wrongdoing. His attorney has said the deaths were all justified and the result of combat-related actions.

Two other minor defendants have already pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Gibbs and others. Unlike Morlock, however, neither is believed to have witnessed any of the killings. A total of 11 members of the Stryker unit have been charged in the case.

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