American Soldier Pleads Guilty In Afghan Murders

A soldier from the Army's Fifth Stryker Brigade is pleading guilty to three counts of murder and other charges Wednesday. Prosecutors say Spc. Jeremy Morlock was a key figure in the killing of three civilians in Afghanistan last year. Photos of Morlock and others posing with corpses in Afghanistan were published by a German newspaper this week. Host Melissa Block talks with NPR's Martin Kaste about Wednesday's proceedings.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Army specialist Jeremy Morlock has pleaded guilty to three counts of premeditated murder for his role in a conspiracy to kill Afghan civilians for sport. The 22-year-old from Wasilla, Alaska was part of an Army unit that's been dubbed the kill squad for their alleged conspiracy to ambush and murder apparent noncombatants.

NPR's Martin Kaste has been at the court-martial at the unit's home base near Tacoma, Washington. And, Martin, tell us more about this guilty plea today. Three counts of premeditated murder.

MARTIN KASTE: Yes. Today in court, Specialist Morlock recounted for the judge what he recalled, to the best of his knowledge, to make sure it scanned with the information the court had. Basically, he said that he and other soldiers killed three Afghan men on three separate occasions last year. This is in Kandahar province. He says they planted drop weapons on the victims' corpses or next to the corpses to make it look like the killings were legitimate.

They called them scenarios. In one case they referred to the pineapple scenario, which was a case in which he and another soldier detonated grenade near an Afghan man, shot him and then planted a Russian grenade that's called a pineapple next to his body, making it look as though he'd thrown the first grenade.

BLOCK: And apart from Specialist Morlock, how many other soldiers are implicated in this?

KASTE: Twelve soldiers have been implicated in this investigation so far. But only five of those are facing murder charges and Morlock is the first of those five to go to court-martial. He's the first because he's cut a deal. He's got a plea bargain with prosecutors. He's agreed to testify against other soldiers and especially a staff sergeant named Calvin Gibbs, who's been portrayed, at least in court here, as the instigator of this whole conspiracy to kill noncombatants.

According to Morlock, Gibbs arrived in late 2009 and started bragging about doing similar things in Iraq. He said he got away with it and wanted to start doing it in Afghanistan.

BLOCK: And with this guilty plea today, Martin, what kind of sentence does Morlock face?

KASTE: Well, Morlock would've faced life in prison without possibility of parole if he'd been convicted straight out. But because of this plea bargain, if the plea bargain holds together, he will face a maximum of 24 years in prison, that is if the bargain holds together.

BLOCK: And let's talk about the negative publicity surrounding this case, in particular some horrifying pictures that were recently released.

KASTE: Yeah, this's really complicated things for the Army in Afghanistan. They've had to apologize in the past for the killing of civilians in combat. And then this - these photos appear to be trophy photos that some members of this unit took of the victims of these killings. They had been kept under wraps. The Army tried to confiscate all copies, but just this past weekend, some of the photos were leaked. No one can say from whom. But they were leaked to the German news magazine Der Spiegel and now they're on the Internet. There are three photos so far and one of them shows Specialist Morlock holding up the head of one of the Afghan men for the camera. This is him posing with a corpse, which violates military justice.

BLOCK: OK, Martin, thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Martin Kaste at the joint base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, talking about the guilty plea for Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock in a court-martial today.

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