Soldier May Testify Against Comrades in Afghan Killings, Lawyer Says

By WILLIAM YARDLEY
Published: February 11, 2011

SEATTLE – The cases against four of the Army soldiers accused of killing three unarmed Afghan civilians for sport last year could hinge on a fifth soldier whose lawyer said he was prepared to plead guilty to the crimes and testify against the others.

U.S. Army, via Associated Press

Specialist Jeremy N. Morlock has signed a confession. The fifth soldier, Specialist Jeremy N. Morlock, 22, who is accused in all three deaths, has signed a detailed confession as part of his effort to avoid a life sentence. Specialist Morlock, who is scheduled to face a court-martial on March 3, is seeking a sentence of 24 years.

The lawyer, Geoffrey Nathan, said prosecutors had agreed to the deal, though Army officials said Friday that they would not comment on the matter. A military judge would have to approve any plea deal and could alter any sentence in it.

A copy of the so-called stipulation of fact accompanying the plea offer and obtained by The New York Times is signed by Specialist Morlock and an Army defense lawyer but not by an Army prosecutor. The Washington Post has previously reported that a plea agreement is in place. Specialist Morlock and Staff Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs are the only two soldiers who have been accused in all three killings, which took place in January, February and May of last year. In the stipulation of fact, Specialist Morlock repeated his assertions that Sergeant Gibbs was the ringleader. All five soldiers, members of a Stryker Brigade from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State who were based near Kandahar, Afghanistan, are accused of faking combat situations to justify killing Afghans with grenades and guns.

“During the entire incident, the Accused knew that the Afghan was unarmed and no threat to himself or any of his fellow Soldiers,” the stipulation says, referring to the killing in May. “There was no lawful justification or excuse for the killing or any of the actions taken by the Accused during the shooting of the Afghan male.”

Specialist Morlock, who is from Wasilla, Alaska, has previously implicated himself and other soldiers in the killings, including in video statements that were broadcast on television last fall. His lawyers had sought to discredit those statements, saying that Specialist Morlock was under the influence of prescription medications and not mentally competent at the time.

“He knows what he’s up against,” Mr. Nathan, a civilian lawyer, said in explaining why his client is now pursuing the plea deal. “We have fully educated him as to his risk factors.”

All five of the soldiers have been referred for court-martial. Two of them, Specialist Michael Wagnon and Pfc. Andrew Holmes, were referred only recently, around the time that Specialist Morlock’s stipulation was drafted on Jan. 28.

Last year, Specialist Morlock initially did not implicate Specialist Wagnon in the killings, but later said he had been involved in the February shooting. According to Specialist Morlock’s signed stipulation, when Sergeant Gibbs asked him to participate, Specialist Wagnon responded, “This isn’t my first rodeo; I’m in.”

Colby Vokey, a civilian lawyer for Specialist Wagnon, said his client is innocent. “In order to get a deal,” he said. “Morlock is compelled to offer testimony against others, including Wagnon.”

“We are definitely going to trial,” he added. “Michael Wagnon has not had anything to do with any kind of planned killing of any person whatsoever.”

Lawyers for the other defendants also said they expected their cases to go to trial. A lawyer for Specialist Adam C. Winfield, who is accused in the May killing, said that his client had pursued a plea deal but had been unable to come to terms with Army prosecutors.

Lawyers in the case say two photographs show Specialist Morlock and Specialist Holmes holding up the heads of dead Afghans as their bodies lie on the ground. But they dispute how effective the photographs would be as evidence. Physical evidence in the case is limited, with investigators admitting they did not do detailed crime scene investigations out of concern that Afghan villagers would become angry if they learned the killings were suspicious.

“Their own mouths convicted them, their own statements,” Mr. Nathan said. “Other than that, there’s no evidence. There are no bodies.”

A version of this article appeared in print on February 12, 2011, on page A11 of the New York edition