Morlock sentenced to 24 years for Afghanistan murders
by Hal Bernton, Seattle Times
Spc. Jeremy Morlock pleaded guilty Wednesday morning to three counts of murdering unarmed Afghans and other wrongdoing during a court-martial hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. —
Apologizing to the Afghan people and the families of the dead, Spc. Jeremy Morlock on Wednesday pleaded guilty to the murders of three unarmed villagers and received a 24-year sentence as part of a negotiated agreement.
In the months ahead, Morlock is expected to return again and again to the red-carpeted courtroom here as a key witness for prosecutors pursuing murder convictions against four other soldiers in Morlock’s platoon.
In one of the most serious war-crimes investigations to emerge from the nearly decadelong war in Afghanistan, they are accused of killing three unarmed villagers in separate incidents, then staging their actions to look like legitimate battlefield casualties.
In a statement to the court, Morlock said he wanted to take responsibility for his actions.
“I violated not only the law, but the Army core values,” Morlock said in a quiet voice. “I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my actions … and how I lost my moral compass. I don’t know if I will be able to fully answer those questions.”
During questioning, Army judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks asked Morlock whether he shot people to scare them and it got out of hand, or if the plan was to kill people.
“The plan was to kill people,” said Morlock.
Morlock would have been sentenced to life in prison, but the plea bargain forged during lengthy negotiations with prosecutors resulted in the lesser sentence and an agreement to testify against other soldiers.
With credit for nearly a year already served, Morlock could be eligible for parole in seven years.
Morlock served with a platoon of the Lewis-McChord-based 5th Brigade (Stryker), 2nd Infantry Division, which served in southern Afghanistan from summer 2009 to summer 2010.
The war-crimes case received a burst of global publicity earlier this week when Der Spiegel, the German news organization, published graphic photos that included a shot of a smiling Morlock posing next to the corpse of one of the Afghan victims. In a separate image, another platoon member posed with the corpse.
U.S. Army officials had tried to keep the images secret for fear of inciting violence against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
In a stipulation that accompanied his plea agreement, Morlock portrayed the squad leader, Staff. Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, as the ringleader who developed the killing scenarios.
Gibbs has said he is not guilty of murder and maintained the deaths were the result of combat actions.
In addition to the murders, Morlock pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit those murders and drug use, noting that he had a habit of smoking hashish three times a week.
He also pleaded guilty to assault. In court documents, he said he helped beat up a soldier who threatened to blow the whistle on the hashish smoking, then returned with Gibbs to throw fingers severed from a corpse in front of that soldier and threaten to kill him.
Morlock grew up in Wasilla, Alaska, and the courtroom on Wednesday was packed with friends and family, including his mother, Audrey Morlock.
“We believe in Jeremy, and we love him,” she said in emotional testimony that sketched his youth in Alaska as a hockey player, hunter and fishermen and also his devastation as a young man when his father died in a 2007 boating accident.
Morlock, in his statement, also referred to his father, an Army veteran who inspired him to join the service after his graduation from high school. “His death left a giant hole in my life and my heart. If he had been alive when I was in Afghanistan, it would have made a difference.”
While Morlock testified yesterday, he never tried to spread blame for his actions. But the Army launched a separate investigation of the 5th (Stryker) Brigade’s leadership. The findings have not been released.
Late yesterday afternoon, a witness for the defense claimed the brigade was rife with command problems.
“What was shocking was the level of chaos, and disorganization. The level of mistrust,” said Stjepan Mestrovic, a sociologist. He said that he and two other researchers spent some 200 hours conducting interviews with soldiers and examining documents, including the leadership report.
Mestrovic painted a disturbing picture of Col. Harry Tunnell, the brigade commander, as having embraced a strategy based on hunting down the Taliban that was at odds with the Army’s emphasis on gaining the trust of Afghans through aid and other outreach efforts.
Mestrovic said that even before the brigade left for Afghanistan, Army commanders considered removing Tunnel and two generals. He also said the brigade initially failed a final certification test before departing for Afghanistan, and only later was approved to deploy.
Mestrovic also noted that Gibbs, a squad leader portrayed by other soldiers as a ringleader in the crimes, was originally part of Tunnell’s security detail before transfer to Morlock’s platoon.
Tunnell, in earlier interviews with The Seattle Times, has said that he was involved in both combat and outreach work in Afghanistan. He maintained that brigade casualties would have been even higher if he modified his tactics.
In closing arguments, defense attorney Frank Spinner, citing Mestrovic’s testimony, said that when fashioning a sentence the judge needed to “keep in mind the totality of the circumstances that existed here.”
Capt. Dre Leblanc, a prosecutor, rejected the argument that commanders bore significant responsibility for the crimes.
“We don’t do this,” he said. “This isn’t how we train. This is not the Army. Your honor, these actions are the actions of a few extraordinarily misguided young men, including the accused.”
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org