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Trial urged for soldier accused of Afghan murders

A U.S. Army colonel has recommended the court-martial of the first of 12 American soldiers charged with murdering Afghan civilians for sport and other crimes, sources familiar with the case said on Thursday.
Image:
Spc. Jeremy Morlock, in videotaped interviews with Army investigators, described a plot led by Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs to randomly kill Afghan civilians.U.S. Army via AP
/ Source: Reuters

A U.S. Army colonel has recommended the court-martial of the first of 12 American soldiers charged with murdering Afghan civilians for sport and other crimes, sources familiar with the case said on Thursday.

The investigating officer who presided over last week's initial hearing in the case found sufficient evidence for Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock to stand trial on three counts of premeditated murder and other offenses for which he could face the death penalty, according to the sources.

The case has drawn intense media attention because Morlock and fellow soldiers are accused of taking ghoulish photos of corpses and keeping body parts as war trophies -- inflammatory charges that echo worldwide outrage at pictures of nude Iraqi prisoners of war taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The U.S. Army confirmed that the investigating officer's report was complete but declined to comment on its contents.

The report is now in the hands of a special court-martial convening authority, said Army spokeswoman Major Kathleen Turner at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, where Morlock's brigade is based, and where the so-called Article 32 hearing was held on September 27.

For the military equivalent of a trial to be held, the recommendation must ultimately be affirmed by a general court-martial convening authority, a process that could take several weeks.

"We're still early in the process, and there has been no final decision on the disposition of the case yet," Turner said.

It is still possible that Morlock could be spared a court-martial.

"The court-martial convening authority could disagree with the investigating officer's recommendation, so until he or she waives a decision here, it's still open," said one military source familiar with the case, who asked not to be named given the sensitivity of the matter.

Morlock, a corporal from Wasilla, Alaska, is the first of five infantrymen charged with murder in the investigation. Seven others are charged with less serious offenses.

The case against all 12 stems from their recent deployment as part of the 5th Stryker Brigade, recently renamed the 2nd Stryker Brigade, in Kandahar province, a stronghold for Taliban insurgents.

Morlock's civilian lawyer, Michael Waddington, has said his client is innocent and that the case against him was based on thin evidence, including statements the corporal made while under the influence of prescription drugs he was taking for pain relief, stress and sleep problems.

Pentagon officials, while stressing the charges have yet to be proven, acknowledged the nature of the allegations are damaging to America's image, and the image of the U.S. military in particular, around the world.

A Pentagon spokesman said that the next Article 32 hearing in the case is set for October 19 for a soldier charged with conspiracy to commit murder of Afghan civilians.