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 was expected to plead guilty on Wednesday to three counts of premeditated murder.
As part of his plea deal, Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock also has agreed to testify against others in his infantry unit who still face court-martial in the most serious prosecution of alleged U.S. military atrocities during 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
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.
In exchange for Morlock pleading guilty to murder, conspiracy and other charges, prosecutors agreed he should serve no more than 24 years in prison instead of life if he were convicted in a trial.
Terms of the plea, outlined to Reuters by Morlock's defense team, are subject to approval by a military judge when Morlock appears on Wednesday for court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington.
Finalized in late January, the plea deal and accompanying admissions, or stipulations, to details of the crimes took five months to negotiate before Morlock signed them, according to Geoffrey Nathan, one of his civilian lawyers.
Morlock was the first of five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, charged with premeditated murder stemming from three Afghan villagers whose slayings last year were allegedly staged to appear as legitimate combat casualties.
Prosecutors have described Morlock as the right-hand man to the accused ringleader of the rogue platoon, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs. They alone among the murder suspects were charged with all three killings.
Seven other members of the combat unit were charged with lesser crimes during the investigation, which grew out of a probe into hashish use by American GIs.
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.
But photos such as the ones obtained and published by Der Spiegel have been regarded as particularly sensitive, and the military was clearly embarrassed that any managed to find their way into public view. In an apology issued on Monday, the Army said the images depict "actions repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values" of the military.
Morlock's cooperation in the prosecution of his co-defendants marks a potential breakthrough in the Army's efforts to bring the cases of the remaining murder suspects to a close without full-blown military trials and before additional photos leak to the media.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune)