JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- An Army staff sergeant described by a comrade as "evil incarnate" cut fingers off the corpses of three Afghan civilians – but he had nothing to do with any plot to slaughter those unarmed men for sport, his lawyer said Monday.
A court martial opened for Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, of Billings, Mont., who has pleaded not guilty to 16 criminal charges ranging from murder to taking the fingers as bloody mementos. He maintains that, as far as he knew, the three killings early last year were legitimate engagements – and that his co-defendants conspired to blame him when they got caught.
"What you are seeing in this case is the ultimate betrayal of an infantryman," Gibbs' attorney, Phil Stackhouse, told jurors in his opening statement.
In some of the most gruesome allegations to emerge from the Afghan war, prosecutors say 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.
Of the five soldiers charged as part of the so-called "kill team" within the platoon, three have pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Gibbs, who faces up to life in prison without parole if convicted.
Gibbs, 26, is the highest-ranking of those charged. Others in the unit, including some of his co-defendants, portrayed him as an imposing sociopath with little respect for life – a man who gunned down dogs without provocation, threatened fellow soldiers and who tallied his kills with skull tattoos on his calves.
Another lead figure in the plot, Pvt. Jeremy Morlock, testified Monday that Gibbs played with the corpse of the first victim, a teenager, as if it was a puppet. The jurors were shown graphic photographs, including one in which Morlock stood over the victim's body and held up his head as though he had just bagged a deer.
A prosecutor, Capt. Dan Mazzone, told the jurors at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle that Gibbs took advantage of weak leadership in the platoon to lead his juniors into the diabolical plot. This wouldn't be a case where they have to second-guess difficult combat decisions, Mazzone told them.
"This case is the exact opposite: It is about premeditated murder," Mazzone said.
Gibbs joined the unit in what was then known as the 5th Stryker Brigade in Kandahar province in late 2009. He soon began telling others how easy it would be to kill civilians, Mazzone said.
And when the platoon later came across a body that had been mangled by a helicopter gun, Mazzone said, Gibbs had reason to believe he'd really be able to get away with murder: As the platoon's leadership watched, one soldier stabbed the corpse with a knife and posed for a photo.
"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' lawyer sought to lay the blame for any unjustified killings with Gibbs' comrades. When Gibbs came to the unit, hash smoking was already rampant, Stackhouse said.
Gibbs, who had more combat experience than most of the others, did talk frequently of previous shootings he'd been involved in – including one in Iraq, when Gibbs fired on a car that refused to stop at a checkpoint, only to later learn that the vehicle was carrying an innocent Iraqi family.
The others may have misinterpreted Gibbs' stories, Stackhouse suggested.
"On hash-filled nights, under a cloud of intoxication ... they'd talk about these things," he said.
Stackhouse admitted in his opening statement that Gibbs took fingers from the victims. He noted that while it's inappropriate to take such trophies, soldiers are taught to disassociate war casualties from the human being they once were.
Gibbs is accused of a wide range of misconduct, from providing a grenade used in January 2010 to kill the first victim, an unarmed farmer in a field in Kandahar province, to directly shooting or tossing grenades at the next two in February and May of that year. One co-defendant, then-Cpl. Morlock of Wasilla, Alaska, said that he or Gibbs enlisted one other soldier to participate in each of the three killings.
Asked why he took part in the killings, Morlock, the first witness, testified Monday that the unit had trained to be deployed to Iraq, and were frustrated that at the last minute their orders were changed to Afghanistan. They wanted action and firefights; instead they got meetings, Morlock said.
"It was a lot of meet-and-greets, shaking hands," he said.
Prosecutors say Gibbs also led a group of others in assaulting a soldier who reported drug use in the unit, and that he threatened that same soldier with fingers severed from the bodies of dead Afghans. That soldier, Pfc. Justin Stoner, ultimately prompted the war crimes investigation by telling investigators who were looking into his beating that members of his platoon had engaged in unjustified kills.
Stackhouse admitted that Gibbs took part in the beating to punish Stoner for going outside the chain of command to report the drug use.
"Did he get roughed up? Yeah," Stackhouse said. "Was he brutalized? No."
Gibbs and Morlock also paid Stoner a visit later to make sure he didn't report the beating, Stackhouse said. Gibbs rolled out the severed fingers on a cloth, and Morlock told Stoner not to wind up like those guys.
"Is this shocking to Stoner? Stoner had seen the fingers before," Stackhouse said.
Morlock has pleaded guilty in a deal for a 24-year sentence. Pfc. Andrew Holmes of Boise, Idaho, admitted involvement in the first killing and was sentenced to seven years, and Spc. Adam Winfield of Cape Coral, Fla., admitted involvement in the third killing and was sentenced to three years.
Winfield had previously tried to blow the whistle on the plot by reporting it to his family, who reported the allegations to Lewis-McChord after the first killing.
The report went unheeded, and two more civilians were killed before the defendants were arrested in May 2010. Winfield said he participated in the last killing because he believed Gibbs might kill him if he didn't.
"He likes to kill things," Winfield told investigators. "He is pretty much evil incarnate. I mean, I have never met a man who can go from one minute joking around, then mindless killings."
Spc. Michael Wagnon, of Las Vegas, who is charged with direct involvement in the second killing, has a court martial scheduled for January.
Gibbs trial is expected to last at least until Friday. The verdicts need not be unanimous; four out of five jurors must agree to convict him.