Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington – The soldier accused of being the ringleader of a rogue Army unit that killed three Afghan civilians last year for sport, crimes that angered Afghan leaders and villagers and rattled high levels of the American military, was found guilty of all charges on Thursday.
The soldier, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, 26, of Billings, Mont., was found guilty of three counts of murder, of conspiring to commit murder and several other charges, including assaulting a fellow soldier and taking fingers and a tooth from the dead. He was sentenced to life in prison but could be eligible for parole in less than 10 years.
The verdict, rendered in under a day of deliberations by a five-member panel after a nine-day court-martial at this base 45 miles south of Seattle, was a decisive victory for Army prosecutors, whose case against Sergeant Gibbs was built largely on testimony from other soldiers, including many who had pleaded guilty in the crimes. Of the five soldiers accused of murder in the case, three have pleaded guilty, one of them to manslaughter.
Sergeant Gibbs’s lawyer, Phillip Stackhouse, tried to convince the panel that most of the soldiers who accused his client were doing so to get more lenient sentences, and that accounts from the soldiers differed. Army prosecutors said that because many of the soldiers had already pleaded guilty to murder and other serious charges, they had no reason to lie. “All to frame Staff Sergeant Gibbs?” Maj. Robert Stelle asked the panel during his closing arguments on Wednesday. “It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous.”
All told, five soldiers were charged with killing civilians in three separate episodes early last year. Soldiers repeatedly described Sergeant Gibbs as devising “scenarios” in which the unit would fake combat situations by detonating grenades or planting weapons near their victims. They said he even supplied “drop weapons” and grenades to make the victims appear armed. Some soldiers took pictures posing with the dead and took body parts as trophies. Sergeant Gibbs is accused of snipping fingers from victims and later using them to intimidate another soldier.
He also pulled a tooth from one man, saying in court that he had “disassociated” the bodies from being human, that taking the fingers and a tooth was like removing antlers from a deer.
Sergeant Gibbs said he that was ashamed of taking the body parts, that he was “trying to be hard, a hard individual.” But he insisted that the people he took them from had posed genuine threats to him and his unit.
The soldiers were members of the former Fifth Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division, which deployed to Afghanistan from this base in 2009. They spent much of their time patrolling roads and small villages near Kandahar, and some soldiers have said the sport killings followed frustration that the unit had not seen more combat.
Sergeant Gibbs joined the unit as a squad leader in the fall of 2009, several months into the deployment, having served previously in Iraq. He was big, 6 feet 4 inches tall, and his fellow soldiers described him as charismatic and tactically smart. While many members in the unit have admitted to smoking hashish on patrol, Sergeant Gibbs was not accused of taking drugs.
By January 2010, the first killing had taken place. The next occurred in February and the last in May. Each time the deaths were cast as combat situations.
While some of accused admitted involvement and implicated Sergeant Gibbs from the moment the investigation began, in May 2010, Sergeant Gibbs consistently said he was not guilty, that all of the killings happened in what he believed were legitimate combat situations. “Keep this one word in mind: betrayal,” Mr. Stackhouse told the panel, “because what you’re seeing in this case is the ultimate betrayal of an infantryman.”
Sergeant Gibbs appeared stunned, his mouth open, when the verdict was read.
One of the principal witnesses against him, Pfc. Jeremy Morlock, pleaded guilty to all three killings in March and faces a 24-year sentence. Specialist Adam C. Winfield pleaded guilty in August to manslaughter in one of the killings and faces three years in prison. Pfc. Andrew Holmes pleaded guilty to one of the killings in September.
Many of the defendants, as well as six others charged in the unit, pleaded guilty to other charges, including smoking hashish and assaulting a soldier who eventually led Army investigators to discover the killings.
Sergeant Gibbs was the highest-ranking soldier charged in the case. The leader of the entire Stryker Brigade, Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV, was removed from his position in the summer of 2010, after the investigation into the killings began.