- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 29, 2011

SEATTLE — A key government witness in the case of U.S. soldiers accused of murdering Afghan civilians for sport had lied about two of the defendants in hopes of winning leniency, according to a man who was locked up with the witness.

Pvt. 1st Class Ronald Darnell Washington provided a sworn statement saying that Pvt. Jeremy Morlock told him last month that Spc. Michael Wagnon and Pvt. Andrew Holmes had nothing to with staging the unjustified killings. Morlock was a leader of the plot and has been sentenced to 24 years in prison in the case.

Wagnon, of Las Vegas, and Holmes, of Boise, Idaho, both claim that they believed they were responding to legitimate threats during the killings last year.

“Morlock felt bad about including Wagnon’s and Holmes’ name in the investigation, considering they weren’t actually involved in the crime,” Washington said. “But he is OK with it, because he knows that their lawyers will get them off because ‘the truth is out there.’”

In all, six soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle, have been accused of involvement in what some of the soldiers referred to as a “kill team.”

Five are charged in the deaths of three Afghan civilians during patrols. In each case, prosecutors say, they found isolated men, pretended they posed a threat, then slaughtered them with guns or grenades. A sixth soldier is charged with urging a subordinate to commit a killing that was never carried out.

Some are accused of planting weapons by the bodies to give the appearance that the victims were combatants. One soldier, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs of Billings, Mont., is accused of keeping fingers as war trophies.

Morlock, of Wasilla, Alaska, pleaded guilty this year in a deal with prosecutors that requires him to testify against his co-defendants. He claimed that he and Holmes killed the first victim, a young farmer, in January 2010 when he tossed a grenade at the man and Holmes fired at him over a low wall.

In the second killing, which occurred the following month, Morlock said that he, Wagnon and Gibbs murdered an unarmed man. Gibbs maintained that the killings were justified.

Washington said he and Morlock were both confined at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Correctional Facility last month when Morlock, whom he did not know, started talking to him about the case.

“Morlock said that Wagnon and Holmes had nothing to do with it, but he lied about their involvement to get the benefit of a better deal,” Washington said.

According to Washington, Morlock said that when first questioned by investigators, he told them Wagnon and Holmes had no knowledge beforehand that the killings were being staged. He later changed the story because he felt pressured by investigators and prosecutors to do so and because he hoped to win a lighter sentence, Washington said.

Wagnon’s attorney, Colby Vokey, filed Washington’s statement in court Tuesday as part of a pretrial hearing in his client’s case. The development was first reported by The News Tribune of Tacoma.

Morlock insisted during that hearing that Wagnon did, in fact, know of the plot in advance and said his earlier statement to investigators was a lie, the newspaper reported.

“I’m telling you, sir, that was not a true statement because Wagnon knew what was going on,” Morlock said.

The third killing occurred in May 2010. In that case, Morlock and Gibbs are accused along with Spc. Adam Winfield, of Cape Coral, Fla.

Winfield gave a videotaped statement acknowledging his participation, but he maintained he took part only after Gibbs threatened him for trying to blow the whistle on the plot.

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