JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. (AP) - A 22-year-old U.S. soldier pleaded guilty Wednesday to the murders of three unarmed Afghan civilians, telling a military judge "the plan was to kill people" in his coordinated conspiracy with four fellow soldiers.
Spc. Jeremy Morlock of Wasilla, Alaska, was court-martialed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, where he pleaded guilty to three counts of murder, and one count each of conspiracy, obstructing justice and illegal drug use in exchange for a maximum sentence of 24 years in prison.
Morlock is a key figure in a war crimes probe that implicates a dozen members of his platoon and has raised some of the most serious criminal allegations to come from the war in Afghanistan.
He was accused of taking a lead role in the killings of three unarmed Afghan men in Kandahar province in January, February and May 2010.
Asked by the judge whether the plan was to shoot at people to scare them, or to shoot to kill, Morlock replied: "The plan was to kill people."
Morlock is the first of five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade to be court-martialed - something his lawyer Geoffrey Nathan characterized as an advantage.
"The first up gets the best deal," Nathan said by phone Tuesday, noting that even under the maximum sentence, Morlock would serve no more than eight years before becoming eligible for parole.
Under the plea deal, Morlock also has agreed to testify against his co-defendants.
Morlock told the judge, Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks, that he and the other soldiers first began plotting to murder unarmed Afghans in late 2009, several weeks before the first killing took place. To make the killings appear justified, the soldiers planned to plant weapons near the bodies of the victims, Morlock said.
"Did everybody know, 'We're killing people who are completely innocent'?" the judge asked.
"Generally, yes, sir, everyone knew," Morlock replied.
Morlock told investigators the murder plot was led by Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs of Billings, Mont., who is also charged in the case; Gibbs maintains the killings were legitimate.
Morlock's mother and hockey coach were among the witnesses expected to testify Wednesday before Hawks, who will determine the soldier's sentence. Morlock's lawyers previously indicated they would argue that a lack of leadership in the unit contributed to the killings.
"He's really a good kid. This is just a bad war at a bad time in our country's history," Nathan said Tuesday. "There was a lack of supervision, a lack of command control, the environment was terrible. In his mind, he had no choice."
Toward the end of more than two hours of questioning by the judge Wednesday morning, Morlock said he had second thoughts about the murder plot while home on leave in March 2010, after the first two killings took place.
"It was really hard to come back," he told Hawks, adding that he no longer wanted to "engage or be part of anything" like the killings that already had occurred.
Morlock said he didn't voice his doubts to his fellow soldiers, however, and he went on to participate in the third killing in May.
Morlock also admitted to smoking hashish on numerous occasions while stationed in Afghanistan, though he said he was not under the influence of the drug at the time of the killings. In addition, he admitted to being one of six soldiers who assaulted a fellow platoon member after that man reported the drug use going on in the platoon.
Earlier this week, the German news organization Der Spiegel published three graphic photos showing Morlock and other soldiers posing with dead Afghans. One image features Morlock grinning as he lifts the head of a corpse by its hair.
Army officials had sought to strictly limit access to the photographs due to their sensitive nature. A spokesman for the magazine declined to tell The Associated Press how it had obtained the pictures, citing the need to protect its sources.
After the January killing, platoon member Spc. Adam Winfield of Cape Coral, sent Facebook messages to his parents saying that his fellow soldiers had murdered a civilian and were planning to kill more. Winfield said his colleagues warned him not to tell anyone.
Winfield's father alerted a staff sergeant at Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle, but no action was taken until May, when a witness in a drug investigation in the unit reported the deaths.
Winfield is accused of participating in the final murder. He admitted in a videotaped interview that he took part and said he feared the others might kill him if he didn't.
Also charged in the murders are Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes of Boise, Idaho, and Spc. Michael Wagnon II of Las Vegas, Nev.
Seven other soldiers in the platoon were charged with lesser crimes, including assaulting the witness in the drug investigation, drug use, firing on unarmed farmers and stabbing a corpse.