A military jury found the head of a rogue US army unit responsible for "thrill killings" of Afghan civilians guilty on all charges Thursday.
At the end of a week-long court martial, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs was convicted on 15 counts, including three counts of premeditated murder for his role in the killings while stationed in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.
After giving its verdicts the five-person military panel reconvened to decide on sentencing. The pre-meditated murder charges normally carry a life sentence, although there was discussion over whether he could get parole.
Gibbs, 26, is the alleged ringleader of a so-called "kill team" responsible for a series of murders of Afghan civilians in southern Afghanistan between January and May last year.
Three members of the rogue army unit have already pleaded guilty in a scandal that has threatened embarrassment for the US military on the scale of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse in Iraq disclosed in 2004.
The prosecution portrayed Gibbs as the ringleader of the rogue unit, which also harvested body parts from the victims as grisly war trophies.
Gibbs's defense team had hoped to plant reasonable doubts in the facts of the trial and shift blame onto the other members of the unit, including Jeremy Morlock.
The jury did not accept that explanation, and came back with a verdict after about five hours of deliberation.
In closing arguments Wednesday, prosecutor Major Robert Stelle dismissed Gibbs's claims that he was responding to legitimate attack when the team killed the Afghans, before removing body parts and taking photos with the corpses.
"This is a case about betrayal, the ultimate betrayal. (Gibbs) betrayed his folk, he betrayed his unit, and with the flag of his nation emblazoned across his chest, thousand of miles from home, he betrayed his nation," Stelle said.
He was accused of setting up the killings, planting weapons on the dead civilians' bodies to make it look like they were fighters, and then removing fingers and teeth to show off to colleagues.
Gibbs's court-martial started last week, and in an unexpected appearance Friday he claimed his unit was engaged in genuine combat -- while admitting that he took fingers and teeth from the corpses.
"In my mind, it was like keeping the antlers off a deer you'd shoot... You have to come to terms with the things you're doing," he said.
The military prosecutor dismissed those claims during a closing argument lasting over an hour at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle, home to the 5th Stryker Brigade.
"Selling the engagement as legitimate was part of the plan," said Stelle, calling Gibbs's stories "fundamentally implausible."
Gibbs's lawyer countered by attacking the credibility of Private Jeremy Morlock and two other members of the "kill team," who received lighter sentences by pleading guilty and agreeing to testify against Gibbs.
In addition to attacking Morlock's statements, defense attorney Phil Stackhouse spent over two hours pointing out discrepancies in the evidence in an attempt to sway the military jury.
Morlock said during the trial that Gibbs "had a general disdain for Afghans, and called them savages."
Stelle called the idea that Morlock and the other kill team members were willing to plead guilty to murder in an effort to foist blame onto Gibbs as "patently ridiculous."
by Andrew Winner
(c) 2011 AFP
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