By Laura L. Myers
TACOMA, Wash (Reuters) - The U.S. Army sergeant charged with murdering unarmed Afghan civilians as ringleader of a rogue combat platoon faced his chief accuser in a military court on Thursday, a soldier who pleaded guilty earlier this year to three killings.
Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs was back in court for a reopened Article 32 hearing, a military justice proceeding roughly equivalent to a grand jury session that determines whether a case gets referred to court-martial for trial.
Prosecutors have cast Gibbs, 26, of Billings, Montana, as the main instigator behind the most serious case of alleged U.S. military atrocities in 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
He is one of five soldiers from the infantry unit formerly known as the 5th Stryker Brigade charged with killing innocent Afghan villagers in cold blood while deployed last year in Kandahar province.
Seven other soldiers were charged with lesser offenses stemming from the investigation, which began as a probe of rampant hashish abuse among the soldiers.
The Stryker Brigade cases, with scores of photographs seized as evidence but sealed from public view by the military, have drawn comparisons to the inflammatory 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.
Gibbs was ordered in January to stand trial on three counts of premeditated murder and other offenses. They include charges he beat up a fellow soldier, tried to obstruct an investigation and collected fingers and other body parts from Afghan corpses as war trophies.
An Army judge at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma granted a defense request to reopen the Article 32 inquiry to give Gibbs' lawyers a chance to cross-examine witnesses who were not previously made available for questioning.
The most anticipated testimony on Thursday came from Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock, 23, sentenced in March to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of murder for his role in the same killings in which Gibbs is accused.
Echoing previous statements to military investigators in the case, Morlock recounted incidents in which he said Gibbs opened fire on innocent, unarmed Afghans during encounters staged to appear as legitimate combat engagements.
In one such killing, Morlock said, Gibbs planted an AK-47 assault rifle that he carried around as a "drop weapon." In another, he testified, Gibbs tossed a Russian-style hand grenade as he opened fire on his victim to leave the impression that their patrol had come under attack. Morlock later added that he then moved the unexploded grenade closer to the body.
"The idea was to go out and find someone to plant an AK-47 on and say, 'We got shot at,'" said Morlock, whom prosecutors have described as Gibbs' right-hand man in their platoon.
Gibbs sat silently through the eight-hour hearing, seeming alert but largely at ease, even as he stared intently at Morlock during his accuser's testimony. Morlock avoided looking at Gibbs, and the two men never appeared to make eye contact during Morlock's 3-1/2 hours on the witness stand.
During two hours of cross-examination intended by defense lawyer Phillip Stackhouse to undermine Morlock's credibility, Morlock acknowledged a history of alcohol and drug dependence. He also admitted, as he has before, to burning his ex-wife with a cigarette during a bar fight and getting into trouble with the Army for having women in his barracks after hours.
But Gibbs' platoon leader, Captain Roman Ligsay, and a fellow sergeant, Michael Hefner, both testified that Gibbs was a "good squad leader," and neither could recall him ever discussing murder scenarios like those described by Morlock.
Morlock, whose previous statements were considered central to the prosecution's case against his co-defendants, had agreed to testify in open court against Gibbs and others as part of his own plea deal.
In May, Morlock took the stand against another of the five soldiers charged with murder, Private Andrew Holmes.
Morlock and Holmes appeared in separate photos published in March by two magazines showing them crouched over the bloodied corpse of a 15-year-old Afghan -- the son of a village elder -- holding the boy's head up for the camera by his hair.
Gibbs' hearing was set to resume on Friday with more witnesses due to be called, but no decision on whether the case will proceed to court-martial was expected immediately.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune and Cynthia Johnston)