A Stryker brigade sergeant was convicted Friday of assaulting the whistleblower who launched the Army’s “kill team” investigation, but he was found not guilty of more serious charges that he plotted to hurt Afghans during a deployment last year.
Sgt. Darren Jones, 30, will serve seven months in prison and be demoted to private. He did not receive a bad-conduct discharge, a punishment handed down to three of his comrades who’ve been convicted for the same crime against the whistleblower, then-Pfc. Justin Stoner.
Jones, a brawny soldier who broke into tears while the panel foreman read his verdict, told jurors before his sentencing that he regretted his actions in Afghanistan and that he wanted to stay in the Army.
“I am sincerely, sincerely sorry,” he said in court at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. “I would like to mold (Stoner) differently if I had the opportunity. My actions while deployed were not the actions of a leader.”
Jones and his family appeared relieved with the jury’s decision. Jones faced a total of 22 years in prison if he’d been convicted of conspiring to kill Afghans and shooting at noncombatants during a March 2010 patrol.
Because he didn’t receive a bad-conduct discharge, “at least he can hopefully get out, still have his veterans benefits, go to school and not be dogged by a felony conviction,” defense attorney Kevin McDermott said.
The five-soldier jury also found Jones not guilty of trying to impede an Army investigation. The panel was composed of two colonels, one command sergeant major and two sergeants major.
Jones is one of 12 soldiers in his platoon who faced charges of misconduct and war crimes allegedly committed during their deployment with the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division last year. Five were accused of murdering three Afghan civilians.
Jones’ is the Army’s seventh conviction in its “kill team” investigation, but the first to reach a jury.
Prosecutors argued that Jones undermined the American war effort in Afghanistan by shooting at noncombatants. They said he failed as a sergeant because he didn’t intervene to protect Stoner when the young soldier raised complaints about drug use at their base. Instead, Jones joined six other soldiers in beating up Stoner.
“This erodes everything that the noncommissioned corps stands for, and this erodes everything their chain of command trusts them to do,” prosecutor Capt. Dan Mazzone said.
The verdict showed that some of the prosecution’s key witnesses weren’t entirely believable to jurors.
Pvt. Jeremy Morlock, for example, told jurors that Jones participated in discussions about killing noncombatants and planting evidence. Morlock has pleaded guilty to helping carry out the murders and agreed to testify against his codefendants.
Morlock also told jurors he had a conversation with Jones in which the sergeant acknowledged that he knew he shot at unarmed Afghans in the March 2010 patrol.
Jurors found Jones not guilty of the charges linked to Morlock’s statements.
“Morlock by himself isn’t going to secure any convictions on anything real serious,” McDermott said.
Several of Jones’ platoon mates joined him in court Friday. Two await courts-martial where Morlock is expected to give crucial testimony against them.
Codefendants Staff Sgt. David Bram and Pfc. Andrew Holmes embraced Jones after his sentencing.
“Really what it boils down to is it’s a bunch of scared kids in circumstances that are way overblown,” McDermott said, “and with the right advice and guidance, a lot of these kids ought to come out OK.”