By John Shryock| March 23, 2011 at 9:56 PM CDT - Updated June 23 at 4:33 PM
By ROBIN HINDERY Associated Press
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Washington (AP) - A U.S. soldier pleaded guilty Wednesday to the murders of three Afghan civilians, telling a military judge "the plan was to kill people" in his coordinated conspiracy with four fellow soldiers.
Spc. Jeremy Morlock was court-martialed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, 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.
Asked by the judge what his intent was, Morlock replied, "The plan was to kill people."
Morlock is the first of five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade to be court-martialed - something his lawyer Geoffrey Nathan characterized 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.
Morlock told the judge, Lt. Col. 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.
"Did everybody know, 'We're killing people who are completely innocent'?" the judge asked.
Morlock told investigators the murder plot was led by Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, who is also charged in the case; Gibbs maintains the killings were legitimate.
Morlock's mother, Audrey Morlock, told the judge that her son had a happy childhood that was full of love, but he changed after the death of his father, a retired Army paratrooper who was killed in a 2007 boating accident. She expressed disbelief when asked about the crimes her son had admitted to.
"I don't know what happened to him, but we love him," she said in her brief, tearful testimony.
Morlock's hockey coach also was expected to testify before Hawks determines the soldier's sentence. Morlock's lawyers previously indicated they would argue that a lack of leadership in the unit contributed to the killings.
"There was a lack of supervision, a lack of command control, the environment was terrible," Nathan said Tuesday. "In his mind, he had no choice."
Toward the end of more than two hours of questioning by the judge Wednesday morning, Morlock said he had second thoughts about the murder plot while home on leave in March 2010, after the first two killings took place.
"It was really hard to come back," he told Hawks, adding that he no longer wanted to "engage or be part of anything" like the killings that already had occurred.
Morlock said he didn't voice his doubts to his fellow soldiers, however, and he went on to participate in the third killing in May.
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.
Morlock, his voice shaking at times, told the judge has had a lot of time to reflect on his actions in Afghanistan and ask himself "how I could become so insensitive and how I lost my moral compass."
"I don't know if I will ever be able to answer those questions," he said, adding that he believes he "wasn't fully prepared for the reality of war as it was being fought in Afghanistan."
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.
After the January killing, platoon member Spc. Adam Winfield sent Facebook messages to his parents saying that his fellow soldiers had murdered a civilian and were planning to kill more. Winfield said his colleagues warned him not to tell anyone.
Winfield's father alerted a staff sergeant at Lewis-McChord but no action was taken until May, when a witness in a drug investigation in the unit reported the deaths.
Winfield is accused of participating in the final murder. He admitted in a videotaped interview that he took part and said he feared the others might kill him if he didn't.
Also charged in the murders are Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes and Spc. Michael Wagnon II.
Seven other soldiers in the platoon were charged with lesser crimes, including assaulting the witness in the drug investigation, drug use, firing on unarmed farmers and stabbing a corpse.
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