By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A key suspect in the U.S. Army prosecution of soldiers accused of terrorizing unarmed Afghan civilians has agreed to plead guilty to murder charges next week and testify against his co-defendants, his lawyer said on Thursday.
Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock has signed documents stating his intention to plead guilty to three counts of premeditated murder and several other offenses when summoned March 3 for court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington.
The deal with prosecutors, which is subject to the approval of a military judge, calls for Morlock, 22, from Wasilla, Alaska, to serve no more than 24 years in prison, as opposed to the life term he faced if convicted of all charges in a trial.
He agreed in return to testify if called as a witness against other Stryker Brigade soldiers charged in connection with what has become the most serious prosecution of alleged atrocities by U.S. military in Afghanistan since the war there began in late 2001.
One of Morlock's civilian defense attorneys, Geoffrey Nathan, said the plea agreement took five months to negotiate. It could prove a linchpin in the military's case against his remaining co-defendants.
Morlock is one of five soldiers charged with murder for the deaths of three Afghan villagers whose slayings allegedly were staged to look like legitimate combat casualties.
Prosecutors have described him as the right-hand man to the accused ringleader of the rogue platoon, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs. They alone are charged with all three killings.
Several men, Gibbs and Morlock among them, are accused of collecting fingers from Afghan corpses as war trophies. But dozens of war-related photos seized as evidence, some said to show soldiers posed with Afghan corpses, remain the most potentially explosive element of the case.
The existence of such photos has drawn comparisons with pictures of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004. And the Army has taken pains to keep the Stryker Brigade photos sealed.
Four men charged with lesser offenses in the investigation already have pleaded guilty and been sentenced.
But Morlock's plea deal signaled a potential breakthrough in prosecutors' efforts to bring the more serious individual cases to a close without full-blown military jury trials. Videotaped statements Morlock gave in lengthy interviews with investigators are seen as pivotal to the Army's overall case.
"Because it seems all the evidence comes from Corporal Morlock, it seems natural they would need to do a plea deal with him," said Dan Conway, a civilian lawyer for co-defendant Private Andrew Holmes, charged with one count of murder.
Holmes' lawyers are seeking to open sensitive photos in the case to public scrutiny. They argue that their ability to cross-examine investigators in open court over what the pictures show is crucial to proving their client's innocence.
In addition to three counts of murder, Morlock has agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to commit murder, conspiring to assault a fellow soldier, trying to impede an investigation and using hashish.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton)