Stryker soldier sentenced to 24 years for murdering Afghans

Stryker soldier sentenced to 24 years for murdering Afghans »Play Video
In this courtroom sketch made Wednesday, March 23, 2011, Spc. Jeremy Morlock is shown seated second from right, as he faces Military Judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks, upper right, during a court martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. (AP Photo/Lois Silver)
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. (AP) - A U.S. soldier was sentenced to 24 years in prison Wednesday after saying "the plan was to kill people" in a conspiracy with four fellow soldiers to kill unarmed Afghan civilians.

Military judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks said he initially intended to sentence Spc. Jeremy Morlock to life in prison with possibility of parole but was bound by the plea deal. Morlock will receive 352 days off of his sentence for time served.

His sentencing came after he pleaded guilty to three counts of murder, and one count each of conspiracy, obstructing justice and illegal drug use at his court martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

"I violated the principles my father instilled in me, I take full responsibility for the deaths," Morlock said in court.

The 22-year-old soldier is a key figure in a war crimes probe that implicates a dozen members of his platoon and has raised some of the most serious criminal allegations to come from the war in Afghanistan.

He was accused of taking a lead role in the killings of three unarmed Afghan men in Kandahar province in January, February and May 2010.

Asked by the judge whether the plan was to shoot at people to scare them, or to shoot to kill, Morlock replied, "The plan was to kill people."

Morlock was the first of five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade to be court-martialed - something his lawyer Geoffrey Nathan characterized as an advantage. Under the plea deal, Morlock agreed to testify against his co-defendants.

"The first up gets the best deal," Nathan said by phone Tuesday, noting that under the maximum sentence, Morlock would serve no more than eight years before becoming eligible for parole.

Morlock's sentence is conditional that he must testify in the trials of the other soldiers accused. If he fails to live up to these requirements, he'll be sentenced to life.

Morlock told the judge that he and the other soldiers 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, he said.

Morlock's lawyers previously indicated they would argue that a lack of leadership in the unit contributed to the killings.

"There was a lack of supervision, a lack of command control, the environment was terrible," Nathan said Tuesday. "In his mind, he had no choice."

During questioning by the judge Wednesday, Morlock said he had second thoughts about the murder plot while home on leave in March 2010, after the first two killings took place.

"It was really hard to come back," he told Hawks, adding that he no longer wanted to "engage or be part of anything" like the killings that already had occurred.

Morlock said he didn't voice his doubts to his fellow soldiers, however, and he went on to participate in the third killing in May.

Morlock also 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. In addition, he 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.

Morlock, his voice shaking at times, told the judge has 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 told the judge his father's death shortly after he joined the military left a giant hole in his heart.

"He served proudly and he was proud of me," Morlock said. "I just wanted to survive and come home in one piece."

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.

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.

Morlock's mother Audrey said the family still believes in Jeremy.

"We love him," she said. "We don't know what happened, but we love him."