A US soldier has pleaded guilty to the murders of three Afghan civilians, as part of a rogue US army unit in southern Afghanistan last year.
Corporal Jeremy Morlock, who is set to testify against four co-accused, admitted murdering or helping to kill three men, and using illegally obtained Afghan weapons to make it appear that the victims were enemy combatants.
Morlock was court-martialed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Wednesday, where he pleaded guilty to three counts of murder, and one count each of conspiracy, obstructing justice and illegal drug use in exchange for a maximum sentence of 24 years in prison.
Morlock 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.
Admitting to crimes
Morlock told the judge, Lieutenant Colonel Kwasi Hawks, that he and the other soldiers began plotting to murder unarmed Afghans in late 2009. To make the killings appear justified, the soldiers planned to plant weapons near the victims' bodies, Morlock said.
Asked by the judge what his intent was, Morlock replied, "The plan was to kill people."
"Did everybody know, `We're killing people who are completely innocent'?" the judge asked.
"Generally, yes, sir, everyone knew," Morlock replied.
Morlock is the first of five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade to be court-martialed -- something his lawyer Geoffrey Nathan characterised as an advantage.
"The first up gets the best deal," Nathan said by phone Tuesday, noting that even under the maximum sentence, Morlock would serve no more than eight years before becoming eligible for parole.
Under the plea deal, Morlock agreed to testify against his co-defendants.
The four others facing charges are the alleged ring-leader Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, Private Andrew Holmes, Specialist Michael Wagnon, and Specialist Adam Winfield.
The first victim of the kill squad died in January 2010. Morlock said the unit was in a village so that army leaders could meet with elders.
He and Private Holmes were on patrol when a man walked toward the two soldiers, who positioned themselves behind a waist-high wall.
Morlock tossed a grenade over the wall near himself and Holmes to make it appear as if the Afghan man had thrown it, and Holmes fired at the man with his machine gun.
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.
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.