By Laura L. Myers
TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier sentenced to 24 years in prison after he admitted to murdering three Afghan civilians in cold blood testified in court on Wednesday against a co-defendant he said was "like a little brother" to him.
Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock, the first convicted among five soldiers charged with committing premeditated murder in Afghanistan last year, took the witness stand at an evidentiary hearing for the youngest of the group, Private Andrew Holmes, who insists he is innocent.
Both men appeared in photos that surfaced publicly in March showing them, posed separately, crouched over the bloodied, prone corpse of a 15-year-old Afghan villager, holding the boy's head up for the camera by his hair.
The Afghan youth was one of three unarmed civilians Morlock has pleaded guilty to murdering in random slayings staged by himself and other members of his unit, formerly the 5th Stryker Brigade, to look like legitimate combat casualties.
Morlock has said in previous statements to investigators that Holmes willingly took part in the January 2010 killing, in which Morlock tossed a hand grenade over a wall to simulate an attack by his victim, then yelled at Holmes to open fire.
Holmes' lawyer, Dan Conway, has said his client shot in the direction of the young Afghan, only because he was ordered to do so, and that he missed.
Last week, a military judge granted a defense request to reopen pretrial evidentiary proceedings in Holmes' case, which was referred for court-martial earlier this year.
That new Article 32 hearing, roughly equivalent to a grand jury proceeding, had been expected to focus on photographic evidence that was disallowed earlier.
But Morlock's testimony and his cross-examination by Conway highlighted his new status as a principal witness in what has become the most serious prosecution of alleged atrocities by the U.S. military during 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
Asked by prosecutor Andrew Leblanc whether Holmes was "on board" with the staged-killing scenario devised by the accused ringleader of the killings, Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, Morlock replied, "Yes, sir."
"We were discussing a grenade scenario," Morlock testified. "It was a conversation."
Morlock also testified that in initial statements with Army investigators in Afghanistan, he "was trying to protect Holmes," whom he described as being "like a little brother."
Conway sought to discredit Morlock as a prosecution witness under cross-examination, eliciting an acknowledgment from Morlock that he had been diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder and had been addicted to alcohol and narcotics.
Conway also cited Morlock's previous brushes with the law, including a 2009 arrest in Washington state on a public disturbance charge, an incident in which he burned his ex-wife with a cigarette and various infractions for misconduct in the Army.
Asked by Conway if he felt remorse for killing three innocent civilians, Morlock, looking pale with dark circles under his eyes, answered: "I sure do."
Another member of the soldiers' combat infantry unit, Staff Sergeant and former platoon leader Kris Sprague, testified under a grant of immunity from prosecution that he regarded Morlock as a "masterful manipulator" and a "bit of a trouble-making soldier."
The court-martial for Holmes, who did not take the stand during the day-long hearing, is set to open on July 11.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Bohan)