Alleged Army “kill team” leader Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs would celebrate whenever he or his soldiers shot Afghan men during their deployment with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade last year, his attorney acknowledged Monday.
Gibbs would pose for photos and even clip body parts from the victims as “war trophies,” he said.
But Gibbs didn’t murder anyone, his attorney insisted, rejecting the Army’s case that the soldier from Montana persuaded four soldiers to join him in killing three civilians in combat-like scenarios they created.
Instead, defense attorney Phil Stackhouse charged that the Army’s witnesses framed the squad leader. Gibbs has pleaded not guilty to the three murder charges and 13 other offenses.
“What you’re seeing in this case is the ultimate betrayal of an infantryman,” Stackhouse said. He argued that as far as Gibbs knew at the time, the shootings took place in legitimate combat.
Gibbs’ court-martial opened Monday, signaling the end of an 18-month Army investigation that resulted in criminal charges against 11 of his platoon mates. Nine have been convicted at previous trials, and three have admitted to taking part in staged killings.
The 6-foot-4-inch soldier sat stoically Monday, with three family members sitting behind him in court at Lewis-McChord. He faces life in prison if convicted of any of the murder charges.
The case against Gibbs has drawn international attention to the base south of Tacoma because he’s accused of leading some of the most serious purported war crimes to emerge since the U.S. attacked the Taliban stronghold a decade ago.
Prosecutors cast Gibbs as a Charles Manson-like figure who planted the seeds by bragging that it would be easy to get away with murder on a battlefield. All you had to do was to shoot someone in hostile territory and claim you were attacked, prosecutors claim Gibbs said.
The Army contends scenarios along those lines unfolded at least three times under Gibbs’ watch in 3rd Platoon, B Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment.
Platoon mates were eager to participate in the schemes, prosecutors said, because they were frustrated by a seemingly invisible enemy that wounded a well-respected sergeant three months into their deployment. Gibbs joined the platoon in November 2009 to replace that noncommissioned officer.
“People didn’t start dying until Staff Sgt. Gibbs joined Bravo Company,” prosecutor Capt. Dan Mazzone said.
Stackhouse turned the Army’s case around on its main witnesses, charging that a group of pot-smoking soldiers framed Gibbs for their own crimes during “hash filled” discussions between their interviews with criminal investigators.
Three of the Army’s main witnesses against Gibbs shared housing once the Army launched its investigation. Two of them have admitted to smoking marijuana while they were in Army custody.
They had “plenty of opportunity to get their stories straight, plenty of time to talk about what can we do to get out of this, who can we blame?” Stackhouse said.
The alleged scapegoat? “He’s sitting right there,” Stackhouse said to the jury as he gestured to Gibbs.
One of the Army’s key witnesses, Pvt. Jeremy Morlock, testified Monday that Gibbs initiated discussions about murdering civilians at Forward Operating Base Ramrod as he felt out his platoon mates to see who would go along with him.
Morlock in March pleaded guilty to murdering the three Afghans and claimed he did so to carry out schemes he and Gibbs devised. Morlock is serving a 24-year prison sentence.
He and Gibbs share a complicated past. Morlock claims they took to each other while talking during patrols in their Stryker vehicles.
He said Gibbs shared stories about his exploits on past deployments, including an alleged incident in Iraq in which he killed three civilians because they wouldn’t stop at a traffic checkpoint. Gibbs reported it as a legitimate engagement, and his command stuck by him when it was investigated, Morlock and prosecutors said.
Morlock said he was afraid of Gibbs not only because of the sergeant’s willingness to kill Afghan civilians, but also because he threatened two of his platoon mates when they showed signs of talking with officers about misconduct.
In May 2010, Gibbs allegedly rolled two Afghan fingers in front of Pfc. Justin Stoner as a message that the soldier could end up like the corpses if he talked to investigators, Morlock said.
Yet since they’ve been confined in Army jails, Morlock has passed notes to Gibbs apologizing for cooperating with investigators.
Morlock painted a sadistic picture of Gibbs in court Monday, describing the sergeant playing with an Afghan’s corpse as if it were “a puppet.” Gibbs cut a finger from that young man, who was their first alleged murder victim, and later gave it to the soldier who shot the fatal bullets, Morlock said. Gibbs also hoisted the body and played with the arms, Morlock said.
“Everybody was really excited,” Morlock said. “It was the first time the platoon had a confirmed kill.”