TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - Two U.S. soldiers accused of murdering unarmed Afghan civilians are seeking plea deals with military prosecutors after a co-defendant agreed earlier this month to testify against fellow GIs charged in the case.
In separate hearings on Tuesday, the two opted to defer entering their pleas to criminal charges stemming from the most serious prosecution of alleged atrocities by U.S. troops since the war in Afghanistan began in late 2001.
They also deferred designating a preference for a judge or jury trial should their cases be referred to court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, home base of the platoon that prosecutors have characterized as an infantry unit run amok.
The two Army specialists arraigned on Tuesday, Jeremy Morlock and Adam Winfield, both 22, are among five soldiers charged with premeditated murder for what court documents describe as random slayings of Afghan villagers staged to look like legitimate combat casualties.
Morlock also is one of several defendants accused of collecting severed fingers and other human remains as war trophies. Seven other troops face lesser offenses in connection a probe that began as an inquiry into wartime hashish abuse.
Tuesday’s back-to-back proceedings came amid growing signs that prosecutors are making headway in bringing more of the individual cases to a close without trial.
That would likely improve the military’s prospects of keeping sensitive photographs seized during the investigation, including photos said to show soldiers posing with Afghan corpses, sealed from public view.
The existence of such photos — a lawyer for Winfield said on Tuesday they number in the thousands — has drawn comparisons with pictures of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004.
Defense attorney Eric Montalvo said on Tuesday he is trying to negotiate a plea deal for Winfield, who has told investigators he came under death threats in Afghanistan for blowing the whistle on the alleged ringleader of the rogue platoon, Sergeant Calvin Gibbs.
“If (plea) deals are not struck, it’s very likely that the photos will become public,” Montalvo told reporters.
A lawyer for Morlock, Geoffrey Nathan, told Reuters in a recent interview that he, too, was seeking to hammer out a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Morlock, like Gibbs, is charged with three counts of murder. Winfield is charged with one.
Both men would be following in the footsteps of Staff Sergeant Robert Stevens, an Army medic who two weeks ago pleaded guilty to shooting at armed Afghan farmers and agreed to testify against the 11 others charged in the investigation.
He was sentenced to nine months in prison on December 1 on a charge of aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon and four other offenses. But he was granted immunity from further prosecution in exchange for his cooperation in the probe.
Lewis-McChord spokeswoman Major Kathleen Turner said on Tuesday that three other soldiers who came under investigation but never been charged also received immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony in the case.
Morlock’s parents from Wasilla, Alaska, and Winfield’s father from Cape Coral, Florida, attended their respective son’s arraignments but did not speak to the media.
Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Bohan