The first of five U.S. soldiers charged with killing unarmed Afghan civilians last year was sentenced on Wednesday 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, marked a turning point in the most serious prosecution of alleged U.S. 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 slayings 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.
German magazine Der Spiegel this week published several photos related to the killings, one showing Morlock crouched grinning over a bloodied corpse as he lifted the dead man's head by the hair for the camera.
The existence of such photos, among dozens seized as evidence by investigators and ordered sealed from public view by the Army, has drawn comparisons with the pictures of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that were made public in 2004.
The judge presiding over the case, Lieutenant Colonel Kwasi Hawks, accepted Morlock's plea deal with prosecutors at the end of a daylong proceeding at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, and handed Morlock a 24-year prison term.
The judge also ruled Morlock's incarceration would be reduced by nearly a year for time already served. He will be eligible for parole in about seven years.
Morlock, who will be dishonorably discharged from the Army, stood facing the judge and showed no emotion as he was sentenced.
‘I lost my moral compass’
Earlier, he read a statement apologizing to the victims' families and the "people of Afghanistan," adding, "I've spent a lot of time reflecting on how I lost my moral compass."
Speaking under oath at the hearing, Morlock also implicated the four other members of his infantry unit's so-called "kill team" and agreed to testify further against them if called as a prosecution witness for their courts-martial.
The Army recently completed a top-to-bottom review of Morlock's combat unit, the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, in conjunction with the criminal investigation, although the 500-page report has not been entered as evidence.
Civilian attorneys for Morlock and other defendants, all enlisted men, have suggested the Stryker Brigade suffered from a breakdown in command and that higher-ranking officers bore some responsibility for the misbehavior of their troops.
The first of five soldiers charged in the case, Morlock was described by prosecutors as the right-hand man to the accused ringleader of the rogue platoon, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs. They alone were charged with killing all three victims, whom Morlock testified were chosen at random by Gibbs.
Seven other Stryker soldiers were charged with lesser crimes during the investigation, which grew out of a probe into hashish abuse by American GIs. Four of them already have pleaded guilty and been sentenced.