A U.S. soldier who pleaded guilty Wednesday to the murders of three Afghan civilians was sentenced to 24 years in prison after saying "the plan was to kill people" in a conspiracy with several fellow soldiers.
Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks, the military judge, said he initially intended to sentence Spc. Jeremy Morlock to life in prison with the possibility of parole but was bound by the plea deal.
Morlock, the first of five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade to be court-martialed in the case, will receive 352 days off of his sentence for time served and could be eligible for parole in about seven years, said Frank Spinner, his lead attorney.
Morlock, 22, is a key figure in a war crimes probe that has raised some of the most serious criminal allegations to come from the war in Afghanistan. Army investigators accused him of taking a lead role in the killings of three unarmed Afghan men in Kandahar province in January, February and May 2010.
Under his plea deal, he has agreed to testify against his co-defendants.
Asked by the judge whether the plan was to shoot at people to scare them, or to shoot to kill, Morlock replied, "The plan was to kill people."
Spinner speculated that "morale problems and discipline problems" in Morlock's brigade created an environment that contributed to the killings -- an argument the defense presented in court through the testimony of Stjepan Mestrovic, a sociologist and war crimes expert.
Other witnesses, including Morlock's mother and his former hockey coach, talked about the devastating effect of his father's death in a boating accident in 2007.
But, ultimately, Morlock accepted that his actions were his and his alone, Spinner said.
Capt. Andre Leblanc, the Army prosecutor, characterized the crimes as acts of "unspeakable cruelty" by "a few extraordinarily misguided men."
"We don't do this. This is not how we're trained. This is not the Army," Leblanc said Wednesday in his closing statement.
Earlier this week, the German news magazine Der Spiegel published three graphic photos showing Morlock and other soldiers posing with dead Afghans. One image features Morlock grinning as he lifts the head of a corpse by its hair.
Also charged in the murders are Spc. Adam Winfield, Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes, Spc. Michael Wagnon II and Sgt. Calvin Gibbs. Seven others were charged with lesser crimes, including assaulting a witness, drug use, firing on unarmed farmers and stabbing a corpse.