A US soldier charged with killing unarmed Afghan civilians last year has been sentenced to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of premeditated murder.
The guilty plea and sentencing of Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock, 23, of Wasilla, Alaska, on Wednesday marked a turning point in the most serious prosecution of alleged US military atrocities during 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
Under questioning by the judge, Morlock recounted his role in the deaths of three unarmed Afghan villagers whose killings by grenade blasts and rifle fire were staged to appear as legitimate combat casualties.
"I knew what I was doing was wrong, sir," he said, adding that, contrary to his lawyers' suggestions, his judgment was not impaired by drugs. He admitted smoking hashish three or four times a week during his deployment in Afghanistan.
His lawyer said he would be eligible for parole after seven years. Morlock was the first soldier to face court-martial out of five members of the rogue US unit from the Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Division's Stryker
brigade, based out of Fort Lewis, Washington.
Earlier, he read a statement apologising to the victims' families and the "people of Afghanistan", saying, "I've spent a lot of time reflecting on how I lost my moral compass".
Morlock, who is set to testify against four co-accused as part of the plea deal, admitted murdering or helping to kill three men, and using illegally obtained Afghan weapons to make it appear that the victims were enemy combatants.
The four others facing charges are the alleged ring-leader Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, Private Andrew Holmes, Specialist Michael Wagnon, and Specialist Adam Winfield.
Morlock told the judge 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, he 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.
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 towards 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.
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.