JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — Members of an American Army unit consumed with drug use randomly chose Afghan civilians to kill and then failed to report the abuses out of fear they would suffer retaliation from their commander, according to testimony in military court here on Monday.
The testimony, in a hearing to determine whether one of those soldiers, Specialist Jeremy N. Morlock, would face a court-martial and a possible death sentence, came the same day that a videotape in the case was leaked showing Specialist Morlock talking to investigators about the killings in gruesome detail with no apparent emotion.
Top Army officials worry that the case against Specialist Morlock and four other soldiers accused in the killings of three Afghan civilians will undermine efforts to build relationships with Afghans in the war against the Taliban.
The soldiers are accused of possessing dismembered body parts, including fingers and a skull, and collecting photographs of dead Afghans. Some images show soldiers posing with the dead. As many as 70 images are believed to be in evidence.
Some of the soldiers have said in court documents that they were forced to participate in the killings by a supervisor, Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, who is also accused in the killings. All five defendants have said they are not guilty.
In one incident, Specialist Morlock recounted in the video, he described Sergeant Gibbs identifying for no apparent reason an Afghan civilian in a village, then directing Specialist Morlock and another soldier to fire on the man after Sergeant Gibbs lobbed a grenade in his direction.
“He kind of placed me and Winfield off over here so we had a clean line of sight for this guy and, you know, he pulled out one of his grenades, an American grenade, popped it, throws the grenade, and tells me and Winfield: ‘All right, wax this guy. Kill this guy, kill this guy,’ ” Specialist Morlock said in the video.
Referring to the Afghan, the investigator asked: “Did you see him present any weapons? Was he aggressive toward you at all?”
Specialist Morlock replied: “No, not at all. Nothing. He wasn’t a threat.”
As Monday’s hearing was getting under way, CNN and ABC News broadcast the video. In the CNN clip and the ABC clip, Specialist Morlock, speaking in a near monotone, looks like a teenager recounting a story to his parents.
CNN also broadcast video of the interview of a soldier who is not accused in the killings but has been accused of lesser crimes, Cpl. Emmitt R. Quintal.
When asked by an investigator when and how often members of the unit used illegal drugs, Corporal Quintal, seated in camouflage fatigues, said it occurred on “bad days, stressful days, days that we just needed to escape.”
The interview with Specialist Morlock was conducted in Kandahar in May, while he was en route to a medical evaluation for what his lawyers said was possibly a traumatic brain injury suffered during his deployment. They say he was taking medication prescribed by military doctors for sleep deprivation, pain and muscle stress, though they said they could not yet establish exactly when he had taken the medication and how it might have affected him.
Specialist Morlock, who grew up in Wasilla, Alaska, appeared in court on Monday but did not testify.
Michael Waddington, his lawyer, questioned Army investigators by phone from their duty station in Afghanistan. Mr. Waddington repeatedly asked whether they found Specialist Morlock to be under the influence of medication in the interviews. Some investigators described Specialist Morlock as tired and sometimes slouching, but they said he was coherent and had a strong recollection of details.
The video, provided to defense lawyers to help them prepare their cases, was not intended by the military to be made public.
“The disclosure of these video recordings is troubling because it could adversely affect the military justice process,” said Col. Tom Collins, an Army spokesman.
The power of images in the case was apparent last week, when the commander of the Stryker brigade in which the soldiers serve ordered photographic evidence to be strictly controlled by investigators at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, with access limited to lawyers.
A memo circulated by a military defense lawyer the previous week described an inadvertent release of photographs, including three that show American soldiers holding up the heads of dead Afghans. It was unclear whether all of the pictures showed soldiers in the cases, though military prosecutors said Monday that Specialist Morlock was in at least one image, apparently with a dead Afghan.
Photographic evidence could play an important role in the Army’s case, as will statements from soldiers. No bodies have been recovered, and a military investigator testified on Monday that the nature of the areas where the crimes occurred, including religious views of residents and potential danger to American soldiers, prevented them from conducting crime scene investigations.
“To exhume a body would cause a lot of issues, even if it was for a good purpose,” said Special Agent Anderson D. Wagner.
Mr. Wagner noted that at least two statements, from Specialist Morlock and another soldier charged, Pfc. Adam C. Winfield, corroborated elements of each other’s story. He also said there was little physical evidence connecting the soldiers to the killings. “I don’t know the final thing that killed those guys, whether it was a bullet or whose grenade it was,” Mr. Wagner said.
The Army’s case is complicated by claims that it ignored warnings that there was trouble in the unit. Private Winfield’s father has said he repeatedly tried to alert military officials that his son had told him through Facebook in February that a murder was committed by members of his unit in January. The soldiers are accused of killings in January, February and May.
Mr. Waddington said in an interview that his client was present where the three crimes are said to have taken place, but that he had not killed anyone.
Mr. Wagner, the investigator, said that during his interview in May, Specialist Morlock had feared retaliation for talking.
Lawyers for Specialist Morlock told reporters during a break that the case reflected a “failed policy” in Afghanistan, and that soldiers like Specialist Morlock should never have been allowed to continue with their unit given the medication they say he was on and the alleged widespread use of drugs in the unit. Seven other soldiers in the unit are accused of other crimes, including hashish possession.
It could be weeks before the military investigator presiding over the hearing, Judge Thomas Molloy, determines how to charge Specialist Morlock.
Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from Washington.