A 26-year-old Joint Base Lewis-McChord sergeant was sentenced Thursday to spend the rest of his life in jail for abusing his leadership position and persuading junior soldiers to join him in plots to murder three Afghan civilians last year.
The conviction of Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs affirms the Army’s depiction of him as a cold-blooded murderer who called Afghans “dirty savages” and openly cut fingers from corpses to bind his collaborators into a rogue “kill team.”
“Sgt. Gibbs is the savage, not those innocent Afghans who did nothing but go about their lives,” prosecutor Maj. Dre Leblanc told the jury Thursday.
Gibbs was found guilty of 15 criminal charges. The three murders carry a minimum sentence of life in prison, although the jury decided Gibbs will have a shot at parole after 8½ years.
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He appeared shocked with his mouth open as the jury forewoman read the verdict. Gibbs’ wife, Chelsy, sobbed with her head in her hands as she sat behind him.
His attorney, Phil Stackhouse, delivered a statement on Gibbs’ behalf asking the jury to grant him a chance to earn parole so he could help raise his 3-year-old son.
“When he enlisted in the Army it was never his intent, just after his 17th birthday, to ever be standing in front of a court martial for the types of crimes he’s convicted,” Stackhouse said.
“All he ever wanted to do was be in the infantry.”
Jurors deliberated for about five hours. Their swift and sweeping decision masked eight difficult days of testimony in which Gibbs’ defense attorney grilled government witnesses and drew attention to the lack of physical evidence.
Gibbs admitted taking fingers from dead men he and his platoon mates killed as if the war trophies were “antlers from a deer,” but he insisted he was not guilty of murder. Stackhouse claimed Gibbs was framed by pot-smoking junior soldiers who shifted blame from their crimes in exchange for lighter punishment.
But Gibbs couldn’t overcome layered testimony from his platoon mates. Two soldiers who admitted joining him in murders placed him directly at two scenes.
Gibbs was one of a dozen soldiers from Lewis-McChord’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division who came home a month early from southern Afghanistan in June 2010 accused of misconduct ranging from assaulting a private to stabbing a corpse.
Five were accused of murder. Three had pleaded guilty before Gibbs’ trial and testified at his court-martial. The fifth, Spc. Michael Wagnon, is expected to face his court-martial in January.
Gibbs was a veteran of two combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan when he joined an infantry platoon at Forward Operating Base Ramrod three months into its deployment.
He stood out in the short-manned platoon, giving the impression he was a squared-away veteran who would keep his soldiers safe as they patrolled hostile territory.
The Army alleged he took advantage of weak leadership in the unit to recruit soldiers for schemes staged to resemble combat engagements.
He found willing participants who carried out a killing on Jan. 15, 2010 without him. The jury found Gibbs was responsible for that homicide because he planted the idea and gave a grenade to admitted murderer Spc. Jeremy Morlock with a plan to carry it out.
That incident set a tone for Gibbs’ platoon, Maj. Rob Stelle argued.
“People didn’t start dying until Staff Sgt. Gibbs arrived,” Stelle said.
Gibbs murdered a second Afghan in February. Three months later, another Afghan man was shot dead in the presence of his family.
Gibbs cut a finger and pulled a tooth from that corpse. The wife “was hysterical” when she saw the body, Gibbs’ lieutenant remembered Thursday.
Gibbs has been in custody since May 2010. He’s had a lot of time to reflect, his attorney said.
“He’s not the same person he was when he was in Afghanistan, or even before he went to Afghanistan in 2009,” Stackhouse said. “He very much wants to be a part of junior’s life, and he doesn’t want his wife to raise him on her own.”