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Convicted Wasilla soldier moved out of isolation at base brig

Hal Bernton

After repeated complaints about the conditions of his confinement, Pvt. Jeremy Morlock has been moved out of an isolation cell at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord brig.

Morlock has confessed to the murder of three Afghan civilians and is expected to be a star witness for Army prosecutors in a war-crimes trial scheduled for September to prosecute four other soldiers accused of involvement in the killings.

After his March sentencing to a 24-year prison term in a plea deal that compels his testimony, Morlock says he was put in a small cell that lacked proper heating and ventilation and was denied contact with other prisoners. His mood soured, and he informed family members he was reconsidering his decision to cooperate with the Army prosecution.

Prison officials told Morlock that the isolation was required to safeguard him from other inmates who might be angered by his decision to aid prosecutors. But Morlock, in an interview earlier this month with The Seattle Times, downplayed such threats, saying he did not expect any retaliation from other inmates for his decision to cooperate.

"They (prison officials) said this was for my own protection. But there was no threat whatsoever to justify it," Morlock said.

On June 13, Morlock was transferred to a new barracks-like cell that he shares with some 40 other soldiers. Morlock says he also has new privileges that allow him to participate in prison work and rehabilitation programs.

Army officials confirmed the move but declined further public comment.

CREDIBILITY WILL BE ATTACKED

Morlock is a 23-year-old soldier from Wasilla who deployed with the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd infantry Division to southern Afghanistan in the summer of 2009.

In interviews with Army investigators, he gave detailed accounts of his participation in the murder of three unarmed Afghans in January, February and May of 2010. He implicated four other soldiers in murders that were staged to appear like legitimate combat killings.

The crimes gained international notoriety as Der Spiegel and Rolling Stone published photos from the crime scene that Army officials had tried to keep out of public view. One photo depicted a grinning Morlock holding up the head of a victim, Gul Mudin, a slender teenage farmer who had been working in a field.

In the upcoming trials, defense attorneys are expected to attack Morlock's credibility, pointing to his admitted use of hashish, opium and other drugs, and statements from other soldiers that contradict some of his accounts of the murders.

Morlock, in an interview, said that talk of the killings began in the fall as platoon members faced lots of roadside bombs planted by a largely unseen enemy. One explosive had blown off the legs of a platoon squad leader.

The soldiers wanted to fight this stealth Taliban but felt their efforts were hampered by restrictive rules of engagement intended to reduce civilian casualties.

"There was a lot of sheer frustration that the rules of engagement were tying our hands, and that kind of planted the seed," Morlock said.

As soldiers grumbled, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, a squad leader accused by the Army of involvement in all three murders, would start to spin the conversation, according to Morlock. He said Gibbs would outline scenarios where they could kill unarmed Afghans and drop grenades, AK-47s or other weapons by the corpses to make it appear that insurgents had been killed in combat.

In interviews with investigators, Morlock said that Gibbs told platoon members about his earlier deployment in Iraq and claimed he killed a family driving down a road in a car and covered up the crime by saying that the car's driver disobeyed an order to stop. Morlock's allegation prompted the Army to start a new investigation of that 2004 incident in Iraq, according to a review of Army documents.

In an interview with the Seattle Times, Morlock said that Gibbs also talked about a second killing in Iraq when Gibbs was a gunner on top of a Humvee. Gibbs said he came under fire from an Iraqi on a motorcycle and used that attack as an opportunity to unleash rounds from his .50-caliber mounted weapon at a woman in a field, according to Morlock.

Gibbs has denied involvement in war crimes. And in a pretrial hearing in November, his attorney Phillip Stackhouse attacked Morlock as an admitted drug user who was "inherently unreliable."

SMALLER CELL

By pleading guilty on March 23, Morlock believed he took responsibility for his actions. He was upset when his prison conditions then took a sudden turn for the worse.

Before his plea, Morlock said he was held in a warm cell in a main area of the base brig and was let out to mingle with other prisoners at mealtimes.

After his conviction, Morlock was moved to a much smaller cell in another part of the prison. Morlocks asserts that the cell lacked sufficient heat, and even with the standard Army issue blankets, he spent a lot of time shivering instead of sleeping. He said he was allowed to visit the gym and a television room but only at night when other prisoners were not present.

His defense team continually pressed for better treatment, initially to no avail.

"Morlock deserves to be treated in accordance with Army norms because he is still a Soldier, and because American values do not permit the abuse of prisoners," wrote Stjepan G. Mestrovic, a sociologist on Morlock's defense team, in an April 11 letter to Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparroti, the base commander.

While isolated, Morlock said he spent much of his time reading books -- plenty of history and, most recently, "Man's Search for Meaning," by Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps.

Morlock is unsure what prompted the prison officials to allow him to join the rest of the inmate population. But he says that his life has dramatically improved.

"Everybody has been super-receptive."

When Morlock first joined other prisoners for a meal, he said other inmates insisted he go to the front of the food line.


By HAL BERNTON
Seattle Times