Photos May Play Role In Alleged Plot To Kill Afghans
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Five American soldiers based out of Fort Lewis, Washington, are facing murder charges. They're accused of killing three Afghan civilians earlier this year. One of those soldiers, Specialist Jeremy Morlock, had a hearing today at Fort Lewis. But the Army is trying to restrict access to key evidence in the case: photos of soldiers with the dead Afghans.
NPR's Tom Bowman has the story.
TOM BOWMAN: The photos are described by one lawyer as trophy shots - the kind a hunter might take. Documents obtained by NPR confirm that the photos show three different soldiers from an Army squad each posing with one of the dead Afghans.
Mr. CHRIS WINFIELD: I guess they would walk up and take a picture and if somebody was standing next to it they were in the picture.
BOWMAN: That's Chris Winfield. His son, Specialist Adam Winfield, is among those charged with murder and described the pictures to his father.
Mr. WINFIELD: My son says basically that people were just getting, like, poses in front of the body to, you know, look, I'm in Afghanistan and here's a dead Taliban.
BOWMAN: Army prosecutors say the dead were not Taliban but Afghan civilians, murdered by the soldiers at random during patrols outside Kandahar City. The Army describes the unit as a kill team that plotted the murders. Lawyers for the soldiers say they're innocent, and the killings took place during combat. Regardless of who's in the photos, they violate Army orders. So four soldiers -including two of those charged with murder - are facing charges of photographing and possessing images of human casualties.
Army prosecutors at Fort Lewis actually released the photos to defense lawyers earlier this month, then abruptly grabbed them back, citing national security.
An Army spokesperson says the photos are highly sensitive, and defense lawyers can inspect the photos only at the Army criminal investigators office.
Mr. DAN CONWAY (Attorney): We have formally requested that the government provide us copies of the photos.
BOWMAN: That's Dan Conway, an attorney for one of the soldiers. Conway says he still hasn't seen the photos but can't properly defend his client without them.
Mr. CONWAY: We're concerned that limited access to the photos may hamper our defense. At some point here, we're going to have to have experts review the photos including a forensic pathologist. We'll also want to inspect digital data embedded in the photo, such as the date that it was taken, perhaps even by whom it was taken.
BOWMAN: It's not certain the photos will ever be released. Before today's hearing, the presiding officer ordered that the photos of the dead Afghans not be made public. He referred to the, quote, "negative impact on the reputation of the armed forces," if they were released.
Another lawyer in the case, Neal Puckett, says the concern goes beyond just the armed forces.
Mr. NEAL PUCKETT (Attorney): It also in a larger sense reflects - would apparently reflect very badly on the United States of America.
BOWMAN: Puckett should know. He represented Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who ran Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. American soldiers who were charged with abusing and humiliating prisoners there kept photos of what they did. Those photos were released and caused outrage throughout the Muslim world, including in Iraq.
Mr. PUCKETT: I could think it did nothing but fuel the insurgency and gain power and support for their efforts to defeat Americans who were depicted doing these horrible things to their brothers in arms.
BOWMAN: Puckett believes that the photos in this case will eventually be released to defense lawyers but with severe restrictions, so they're not made public.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.