By Laura L. Myers
TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - The first of five U.S. soldiers charged with killing unarmed Afghan civilians in cold blood last year pleaded guilty on Wednesday to three counts of premeditated murder and apologized in court, saying, "I lost my moral compass."
The guilty plea, entered by Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock as his court-martial began, marked a key turning point in the most serious prosecution of alleged U.S. military atrocities during 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
Speaking under oath at the proceedings, Morlock, 23, also implicated the four other members of his infantry unit's so-called "kill team" and agreed to testify further against them if called as a prosecution witness for their courts-martial.
Pentagon officials have said from the outset that allegations raised by the investigation, even if proven untrue, were damaging to the image of the U.S. military abroad.
The case was brought into grim relief this week when German magazine Der Spiegel published several photos related to the killings, one showing Morlock crouched grinning over a bloodied corpse as he lifted the dead man's head by the hair for the camera.
The existence of such photos, among dozens seized as evidence by investigators and ordered sealed from public view by the Army, has drawn comparisons with pictures of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004.
While Morlock's cooperation may help bring the outstanding cases to a swift close, one military prosecutor, Captain Andre LeBlanc, told the judge the "investigation is so expansive and ongoing that there's a strong possibility" additional charges will be filed.
The Army recently completed a top-to-bottom review of Morlock's combat unit, the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, in conjunction with the criminal investigation.
Civilian attorneys for Morlock and other defendants, all enlisted men, have suggested the Stryker Brigade suffered from a breakdown in command and higher-ranking officers bore some responsibility for misconduct of their troops.
In exchange for Morlock pleading guilty to murder, conspiracy and other charges, prosecutors have agreed he should serve no more than 24 years in prison instead of life if he were convicted in a trial.
Terms of the deal are subject to approval by a military judge, Lieutenant Colonel Kwasi Hawks, who questioned Morlock extensively about whether he understood the nature of the charges and the pleas entered on his behalf.
In a hushed voice, Morlock recounted his roles in the deaths of three unarmed Afghan villagers whose slayings by grenade blasts and rifle fire from Morlock and others in his unit were staged to appear as legitimate combat casualties.
"I knew what I was doing was wrong, sir," he said, adding that, contrary to his lawyers' suggestions, his judgment was not impaired by drugs. However, he also said he smoked hashish three or four times a week during his deployment.
Describing the slaying last January of an Afghan villager whose body is pictured in Der Spiegel's photos, Morlock recalled that he dropped a grenade over a wall separating himself from the victim "to simulate that it was thrown at us," as another member of his squad opened fire on the man.
Morlock later read a statement apologizing to the victims' families and "people of Afghanistan."
"I publicly take responsibility for the deaths," he said. "I've spent a lot of time reflecting on how I lost my moral compass."
Morlock, the first of five soldiers charged in the case, was described by prosecutors as the right-hand man to the accused ringleader of the rogue platoon, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs. They alone were charged with killing all three victims, whom Morlock testified were chosen at random by Gibbs.
Seven other members of the combat unit were charged with lesser crimes during the investigation, which grew out of a probe into hashish abuse by American GIs. Four of those men already have pleaded guilty and been sentenced.
Besides his alleged role in terrorizing civilians, Morlock was accused along with Gibbs of intimidating fellow soldiers by displaying severed fingers taken from Afghan war dead.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune and Jerry Norton)