JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - A soldier who is charged with leading a conspiracy to randomly target and kill unarmed Afghan civilians made his first appearance in a military courtroom Tuesday, as prosecutors presented details of perhaps the most serious war-crimes case to emerge from the Afghan conflict.
Staff Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs, 25, of Billings, Mont., is accused of leading a "kill team" of soldiers that murdered three unarmed Afghan men, hoarded body parts and photographed each other posing with their victims between January and May. Although the Army has not revealed a motive for the killings, other soldiers charged in the case have said they acted simply because they thought they could get away with it - and did so for several months without attracting scrutiny.
Four other soldiers from the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division also face murder charges. Some of the defendants have described Gibbs as the ringleader, saying he planned the attacks, planted evidence to cover them up, carved fingers off corpses and intimidated other members of the unit to keep silent.
Gibbs's civilian attorney, Phillip Stackhouse, has said that the killings were combat-related and therefore justified. Gibbs's family members have declined to speak with reporters.
In a pre-trial hearing Thursday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash., the military laid out its charges against Gibbs. They include three counts of murder, conspiracy, dereliction of duty, assault with a dangerous weapon and attempting to impede an investigation. The Article 32 hearing is the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing; a military judge will determine if there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a court martial.
On Tuesday, Gibbs, who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, sat largely expressionless in the wood-paneled courtroom, flanked by his two lawyers. He declined to address the court, but told the military court's investigating officer, Col. Thomas P. Molloy, that he understood the charges against him and was satisfied with his legal defense.
More than 20 witnesses are scheduled to be called during the two-day hearing. Most of them are members of Gibbs's unit and were expected to decline to testify by invoking their right against self-incrimination.
According to Army criminal investigators, the killings began two months after Gibbs joined the unit in November and began bragging about how easy it had been for him to get away with "stuff" during a previous deployment in Iraq. The Army has subsequently re-opened an investigation into a 2004 incident in which Gibbs and other soldiers are alleged to have fired on an unarmed Iraqi family riding in a car, killing two adults and one child.
Gibbs told interrogators in May that any suggestion he had committed pre-meditated murder was "offensive." But he has not denied involvement in the killings. According to the Army, he sports a vivid tattoo on his left calf of a crossed pair of pistols, framed by six skulls.
Three of the skulls, colored in red, represented "kills" he had in Iraq, Gibbs told his interrogators; the other three skulls, in blue, were from Afghanistan.