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Solider: Afghan killings were in legitimate combatAlleged mastermind in Afghan thrill-kill plot says killings were legitimate combat engagements
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. (AP) ' An Army staff sergeant accused of masterminding the murders of three Afghan civilians took the witness stand at his own court martial Friday, giving his first public denial of involvement in any plot and contradicting the accounts of co-defendants and fellow soldiers who portrayed him as an imposing, bloodthirsty sociopath.
Wearing his green uniform decorated with service ribbons, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs of Billings, Mont., said that from his perspective the killings last year were legitimate combat engagements. The 6-foot-4 26-year-old answered questions from his lawyer before five military jurors, the judge and spectators 'including his wife ' at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged cutting fingers from the dead Afghans to keep as war trophies. When his lawyer, Phil Stackhouse, asked him why, Gibbs responded: "I guess that's just a product of war. I'm not proud of it."
Gibbs is the highest-ranking of five soldiers charged in the killings, which took place in January, February and May of last year. Prosecutors said Gibbs and his co-defendants slaughtered the victims with grenades and powerful machine guns during patrols in Kandahar province, then dropped weapons near their bodies to make them appear to have been combatants.
Two co-defendants and other soldiers have testified against him, but Stackhouse said in his opening statement early this week that the co-defendants conspired to blame him for what they did.
The shocking case came to light in May 2010, after a soldier who said he was beaten up by Gibbs and others for reporting drug use in the platoon told investigators that his comrades had deliberately killed civilians. The five soldiers were arrested in Afghanistan, along with several others who faced less serious charges, including assault and drug use.
One of the defendants, then-Spc. Adam Winfield of Cape Coral, Fla., tried to blow the whistle on the plot after the first killing by sending Facebook messages home to his parents in which he warned that more killings were planned: "If you talk to anyone on my behalf, I have proof that they are planning another one in the form of an AK-47 they want to drop on a guy."
But calls Winfield's father made to Lewis-McChord went unheeded, and before long two more Afghan civilians had been killed ' one of them with the AK-47 beside his body, prosecutors said. Winfield pleaded guilty in the final killing and said he took part because he feared Gibbs would hurt him if he didn't.
Gibbs' testimony Friday was at odds with that of the other witnesses, who said he began talking about killing civilians soon after he joined the unit in late 2009. In the second killing, Pvt. Jeremy Morlock ' who has pleaded guilty and is serving 24 years for the murders ' said Gibbs killed an unarmed man after firing an illicit AK-47 into the wall of a compound and tossing the weapon at the man's feet to make him appear to have been an enemy.
But Gibbs maintained the engagement was legitimate: The man started firing with the AK-47, but the gun jammed, and Spc. Michael Wagnon, who is also charged in that killing, returned fire.
"I was engaged by an enemy combatant," Gibbs said. "Luckily his weapon appeared to malfunction and I didn't die."
Wagnon's court martial is scheduled for January.
Gibbs faces up to life in prison if convicted. Four out of five jurors must agree to convict him.
Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle
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