Reporting from Seattle — An Army sergeant so sharp he looked like a recruiting poster — who had skulls tattooed on his leg said to represent the people he'd killed in Iraq — was convicted of three counts of premeditated murder Thursday in the most gruesome war crimes case to emerge from the war in Afghanistan.
Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, 26, was also found guilty of keeping decomposing fingers, leg bones and a tooth as trophies from corpses, and organizing the gang beating of a fellow soldier he feared would report the rampant hashish use in what Army officials say was an "out of control" platoon.
The five-member military jury deliberated about four hours before convicting Gibbs, who led a team from what was then the 5th Stryker Brigade. Gibbs, from Billings, Mont., was sentenced to life in prison, but will be eligible for parole after 10 years.
The case of the rogue Army "kill team" yielded disquieting revelations about what happened to unarmed Afghan civilians who became victims in what prosecutors said was Gibbs' plan to kill for sport.
Throughout his court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Gibbs was portrayed by Army lawyers as the ringleader of the platoon, who persuaded others to help carry out bizarre and deadly scenarios he invented.
"Sgt. Gibbs had the charisma. He had that 'follow me' personality. He's a well-spoken guy, tactically proficient. But it was all a bunch of crap," prosecutor Maj. Robert Stelle told the jury in testimony reported by the Tacoma News Tribune.
Gibbs contended he had fired at one of the Afghans in self-defense and was not involved in the other killings. He said he was blamed by fellow soldiers in a unit that was already dysfunctional before he arrived. Taking the stand in his own defense, he admitted he had kept fingers and a tooth as "war trophies," but said it was part of the steely persona soldiers must adopt to get through combat.
"I was trying to be hard — a hard individual — and not let it affect me," he said. "In my mind, I was there to take the antlers off the deer."
But some of the soldiers Gibbs blamed took the stand against him, saying he had bragged about previous killings in Iraq and urged soldiers to set up new scenarios in which they would pick out a civilian to kill and then plant a weapon to make it look as if the Afghan had shot first.
Pvt. Jeremy Morlock, who pleaded guilty to his role in the three killings and was sentenced to 23 years before testifying against Gibbs, told Army investigators that Gibbs kept a rocket-propelled grenade, mortar round, C-4 explosive and half of a Claymore mine in his room, along with a water bottle containing several fingers.
Spc. Adam Winfield also pleaded guilty and testified against Gibbs, who Morlock said intimidated Winfield into silence by threatening to take him to the gym and drop a weight on his neck. Winfield had begged his family for help in getting out of the platoon.
Winfield pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to three years in prison. Gibbs' lawyer, Phillip Stackhouse, argued that Winfield and others had testified against Gibbs in hopes of shortening their own sentences.
At the sentencing hearing, according to the Associated Press, prosecutor Capt. Andre LeBlanc urged the judge to withhold parole, saying that Gibbs had referred to Afghans as savages, but that "Staff Sgt. Gibbs is the savage."
Stackhouse, though, said the sergeant deserved leniency.
"He'd like you to know he has had failures in his life and he's had a lot of time to think about them," the lawyer said. "He wants you to know he's not the same person he was in Afghanistan."