Accused leader in Afghan civilian killings charged in military court

Accused leader in Afghan civilian killings charged in military court
In this artist sketch, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, center, is seen during a military hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Tuesday, November 9, 2010.
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD -- Military officials have referred court martial charges against Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs, the soldier accused of leading the alleged murder plot against Afghan civilians.

Gibbs will face a number of charges in military court: three counts of premeditate murder, unlawfully striking another soldier, committing an assault with a dangerous weapon, conspiracy to commit premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit assault consummated by battery, conspiracy to commit aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon, two counts of conduct prejudicial to good order, two counts of wrongfully endeavoring to impede an investigation, wrongfully communicating a threat to injure, two counts of dereliction of duty and one count of violating a lawful general order.

If convicted on all charges, Gibbs could face life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Gibbs is one of five Stryker soldiers charged with murder and conspiracy in the deaths of three Afghan civilians during patrols in Kandahar Province. Also charged are Cpl. Jeremy N. Morlock, Spc. Adam C. Winfield, Spc. Michael S. Wagnon, II, and Pfc. Andrew Holmes.

According to statements by some soldiers, they were led by Gibbs, the highest ranking defendant, who is accused of putting together a "kill team" to slaughter civilians. He maintains all the shootings were justified.

But Staff Sgt. Robert Stevens, a friend of Gibbs and a defendant who reached a plea deal, told investigators that he joined Gibbs on patrols even though he was in a different unit. In March, Gibbs ordered Stevens and several other soldiers to join him in shooting at two unarmed men standing in a field, Stevens told investigators.

They missed.

"When SSG Gibbs called for us to fire I knew there was not a threat, and that there was no reason to shoot these guys," Stevens said in a written statement.

"I was extremely thankful to find out that we had not killed or wounded either of those two individuals, and I regret not trying to stop Staff Sgt. Gibbs from trying to kill innocent people," he said in a sworn statement.

Stevens also said Gibbs had shown him a finger he claimed to have cut from the body of an Afghan National Army or Afghan National Police member killed by a roadside bomb, and that Gibbs illicitly collected weapons. Others claimed that Gibbs dropped such weapons near the bodies of civilians to make them appear to have been combatants.

During his court-martial last month on misconduct charges, Stevens said Gibbs gave him one illicitly obtained grenade. The News Tribune of Tacoma reported that Stevens said he threw it out of a Stryker vehicle and claimed it had been tossed by an enemy combatant - an incident that resulted in him being awarded a combat action badge.

"There was no reason for it," Stevens said in court.

Stevens reached a plea agreement which requires him to testify against the other defendants as needed by prosecutors.

An Army court on Friday refused to order that gruesome Afghan corpse photographs taken by the charged soldiers be made public. Pfc. Andrew Holmes, one of five defendants, had filed a petition asking the Army Court of Criminal Appeals to allow him to present the sensitive photographs during a preliminary hearing in his case.

Holmes' attorney, Dan Conway, argues that that photographs could help show that the injuries one victim sustained were not caused by his client's weapon. The Army is keeping a tight lid on the pictures because it fears they could cause a backlash among Afghan citizens, but Holmes' attorney says that violates his right to public legal proceedings.

The court issued a two-sentence order Friday and did not explain its reasoning.

An Army investigator has recommended dropping murder and conspiracy charges against defendant Spc. Michael Wagnon. The investigator's report stated there's no evidence to sustain charges that Wagnon deliberately killed any civilian, conspired to kill civilians,
possessed a human skull fragment or tried to impede an investigation.

The Army appointed a brigadier general to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the 5th Stryker Brigade after the allegations surfaced.

Maj. Kathleen Turner, a spokeswoman at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, confirmed the administrative investigation Monday. The review is focusing on "all aspects potentially related to the allegations of murder, assault and drug use by 5th Stryker Brigade soldiers while in Afghanistan, to include individual and leader accountability," she said.