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 the reopening of his so-called Article 32 hearing, a proceeding to hear evidence roughly equivalent to a grand jury session that determines whether case gets referred to court-martial for trial.
Prosecutors have cast Gibbs, of Billings, Montana, as the principal instigator behind the most serious instances of alleged U.S. military atrocities during 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 during random encounters staged to look like legitimate combat engagements.
Seven other GIs 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 hundreds of photographs seized as evidence but sealed from public view by the military, have drawn comparisons to the inflammatory Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq of 2004.
Gibbs, 26, was ordered in January to stand trial on three counts of premeditated murder and additional 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.
But an Army judge 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 at Thursday's hearing was expected to come from Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock, who prosecutors have described as Gibbs' right-hand man.
Morlock, the first soldier charged in the case, was sentenced in March to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of murder in connection with the same killings with which Gibbs is accused.
Morlock, whose statements to military investigators already were considered central to the prosecution's case against his co-defendants, agreed as part of his plea deal to testify in open court against Gibbs and others.
In May, Morlock took the stand against another one 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 villager, holding the boy's head up for the camera by his hair.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune)