Alaska soldier's drug use an issue in war crimes hearing

CASE: Lawyer may try to discount statements made under influence.

September 26, 2010 

SEATTLE -- Along with his rifle and armor, Army Spc. Jeremy Morlock relied on a bag of prescription medications to help him get through a treacherous year in Afghanistan, where his body was rattled by bomb attacks.

In May, when Morlock was questioned about alleged war crimes, his prescription drugs included two anti-depressants, a potent muscle relaxer, two sleep medications and a pain reliever infused with codeine, according to a list provided by his defense attorney.

In two interviews with investigators, the 22-year-old Alaskan made a series of stunning allegations that implicated him and four other soldiers in what Army prosecutors assert were premeditated plans to murder three Afghan civilians.

These statements now form a central part of the Army's case against the five soldiers.

In a hearing scheduled for today at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Morlock's civilian defense attorney, Michael Waddington, is expected to argue that his client's statements should be discounted because they were given while Morlock was under the influence of some of these drugs.

"We pulled at least 10 prescriptions out of his bag. They were giving these out like candy," Waddington said. "His memory of events is very foggy." Other lawyers who have reviewed the statements, one of which was on videotape, said Morlock sometimes sounded confused and the information he provided was sometimes contradictory.

Morlock is to be the first of five soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord to face an Article 32 hearing, where prosecutors will try to show that there's enough evidence to proceed with courts-martial. These trials likely would be the most high-profile prosecutions of U.S. war crimes to result from the nearly 9-year-old war in Afghanistan.

The cases also are being monitored closely by Army officials who fear that the Taliban insurgency could use them to sow mistrust of U.S. soldiers in the middle of a major push to gain control of Kandahar province, where the crimes are alleged to have occurred.

Morlock is accused of involvement in all three slayings.

In two of the incidents, grenades were thrown at the victims and they were shot, according to charging documents. The third victim also was shot.

The soldiers are accused of killing the three Afghans while on patrol, and anyone who dared to report the events was threatened with violence, according to statements made to investigators.

Morlock also faces charges of drug use, obstruction of justice and other crimes. Prosecutors are expected to use his statements, along with details offered by other soldiers, to build their war-crimes case.

Morlock and the four other soldiers accused of the crimes were part of what was then the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry, which arrived in Afghanistan in summer 2009 in the early phase of the Kandahar campaign.

Patrolling on foot and in Stryker vehicles, the soldiers early in their deployment encountered numerous bombs buried in trails or roads.

Morlock suffered traumatic brain injury from four concussive events, according to Waddington.

By last fall, still early in the deployment, the soldiers were emotionally and physically fatigued, according to the statement of Spc. Adam Kelly, a platoon member. There also are allegations that some soldiers, including Morlock, began to smoke hashish.

Around Thanksgiving, Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, a Billings, Mont., veteran of two previous deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, arrived in Morlock's platoon to replace a wounded sergeant. Morlock, in his statement to investigators, said Gibbs began to talk about "stuff" he had gotten away with in Iraq and felt out platoon members to see if they would be willing to stage killings of Afghans.

In three separate incidents -- in January, February and May of this year -- Morlock alleged, civilians were murdered while the soldiers were on patrol. The deaths were made to appear as justified killings of Afghan civilians, he said.

By May, Morlock's brain injuries had prompted doctors to approve a medical evacuation, Waddington said.

But before that could happen, Morlock was intercepted by two criminal investigators. They were following up on a tip from another soldier, who, after being beaten for telling about hashish use, said Morlock and others had committed murder.

HIGH SCHOOL IN MAT-SU

The allegations against Morlock staggered his friends in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, where he grew up and excelled as a high-school athlete.

As captain of his hockey team in Houston, Morlock had a reputation as a tough player who could exert a punishing toll on an opponent. In a matchup with Wasilla High School, the game plan called for Morlock to bait and harass the opponent's star player, Track Palin, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's son.

Lashing back in frustration, Palin drew a foul that landed him in the penalty box. Morlock then helped Houston win in overtime.

"He could get under your skin -- even sometimes my skin," said Morlock's former coach, Jamie Smith. "But he was one of those kids who, if he respects you and you give him an order, he's going to do it."

Smith, who's known Morlock for about 14 years, said Morlock could be a "little crazy" but was honest almost to a fault. Smith recalls that Morlock, at the tail end of his senior season, was cited by police for underage drinking and then suspended from a tournament.

"He could have bit his lip and kept quiet about it, but he came right up to me and said, 'Coach, I screwed up this weekend, and I don't want you to hear from somebody else,'" Smith said.

But another former hockey coach, Sean McCoy, said Morlock had a violent temper.

McCoy cited an incident that occurred in the 2004-2005 hockey season, when as a junior in high school, Morlock joined in a practice session with middle-school players.

Booted off the ice for bad behavior, McCoy said, Morlock went into a locker room and assaulted a younger player. Morlock punched, squeezed the player's jugular and slammed the younger boy's body again the wall, narrowly missing a coat hook, according to McCoy.

"It was definitely meant to hurt and intimidate, and for no reason," McCoy said.

He said his team contacted Wasilla police, who came to the locker room to investigate but declined to press charges. Smith said he learned of the incident but discounted it as a minor scuffle.

DOMESTIC CONFLICTS

Morlock joined the Army after his 2006 graduation from high school. While stationed in Washington state, he got married. By summer 2008, the marriage turned rocky amid allegations of abuse by both parties.

Last June 19, Morlock was charged in Auburn Municipal Court with fourth-degree assault for allegedly throwing a beer glass at his wife and pressing a lighted cigarette against her chest.

In a statement to Auburn police, his wife said she was concerned for her safety and contacted her husband's Army supervisors.

Morlock was convicted of a lesser charge of disorderly conduct and paid a $518 fine. The incident wasn't deemed serious enough to bump him from Afghanistan duty.

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