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Court-martial begins for sergeant accused of killing civilians

October 31, 2011 |  2:30 pm

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The court martial for Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, accused ringleader of a rogue U.S. Army platoon accused of murdering civilians in Afghanistan for sport, opened Monday, with Gibbs' lawyer admitting Gibbs kept fingers from three victims as souvenirs.

But the defense lawyer, Phil Stackhouse, says Gibbs saw the killings as legitimate engagements, not premeditated murder.

Gibbs was set up for blame by fellow squad members who already have admitted their roles in the killings, Stackhouse said. In proceedings reported by the Associated Press, Stackhouse said Gibbs was misunderstood by his fellow soldiers when he talked about previous killings of civilians during an earlier deployment to Iraq.

The court martial is being held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

"On hash-filled nights, under a cloud of intoxication ... they'd talk about these things," Stackhouse said. "What you are seeing in this case is the ultimate betrayal of an infantryman."

Stackhouse conceded that Gibbs had kept fingers cut from the corpses of three civilians, and that he used the trophies to threaten another unit member who was blowing the whistle on drug use among the soldiers. That was merely a reflection, he said, of the way in which U.S. troops had been conditioned to disassociate combat casualties from the human beings they once were.

But the Army prosecutor, Capt. Dan Mazzone, said Gibbs recognized a unit ripe for trouble when he joined what was then known as the 5th Stryker Brigade in Kandahar province in 2009.

"This platoon is out of control," Mazzone said. "He sees weak leaders, he sees an opportunity, he sees soldiers who are willing to cross the line."

Gibbs told other unit members it would be "easy" to get away with the murders as long as they took precautions, such as selecting targets from Taliban-friendly villages, Mazzone said, according to the Tacoma News-Tribune.

"People didn’t start dying until Staff Sgt. Gibbs joined Bravo Company," Mazzone said. "At the end of the day, to quote Staff Sgt. Gibbs, it’s going to be that 'easy' to convict Staff Sgt. Gibbs."

Gibbs, 26, from Billings, Mont., has pleaded not guilty to 16 charges, including the three killings between January and March 2010 that several unit members have said involved picking out and killing Afghan villagers and then making it look as if the victims had launched an attack.

Four other members of the unit have also been charged in the killings; three of them already have pleaded guilty: then-Cpl. Jeremy Morlock, sentenced to 24 years in prison; PFC Andrew Holmes, sentenced to seven years; and Spc. Adam Winfield, sentenced to three years. Most have said Gibbs was the mastermind and talked or threatened them into cooperating.

Morlock, who has been described as Gibbs' right-hand man, began testifying for the prosecution Monday morning.

If convicted, Gibbs faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

RELATED:

U.S. soldier pleads guilty to murder of three Afghans

War crimes hearing begins for soldier in Afghan deaths

Soldier pleads guilty to manslaughter in Afghan's killing

--Kim Murphy in Seattle

Illustration: In this courtroom sketch, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs is seated at lower left as Army prosecutor Capt. Dan Mazzone stands at center and the military judge, Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks, listens at top left. Credit: Peter Millett /Associated Press

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