Spc. Adam Winfield received a three-year sentence Friday for his role in the killing of an unarmed Afghan civilian and will testify in upcoming war-crimes trials.

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — A soldier who tried unsuccessfully to sound an alarm about fellow soldiers bent on murder received a three-year prison sentence at a Friday court-martial for his role in the killing of an unarmed man and repeated use of hashish.

Spc. Adam Winfield’s whistle-blowing effort took place in February 2010 as he spurred his father to contact an Army official about murder schemes taking shape in his platoon.

The Army failed to act on the tip, and Winfield’s effort to put an end to wrongdoing appeared to play a role in a judge’s decision to give Winfield three years rather than a longer sentence for the crimes of manslaughter and use of an illegal substance.

“I am very sorry for the thing that happened, and I wish it didn’t go the way that it did,” said Winfield, who repeatedly wiped away tears as he took the witness stand Friday. “I wasn’t brave and I wish I was braver, and that is going to haunt me the rest of my life.”

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During his testimony, Winfield, 23, detailed the May 2 killing of an unarmed Afghan man that he alleged was orchestrated by a squad leader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs.

Winfield alleged that Gibbs pulled an unarmed Afghan man away from his family, then set in motion an execution involving a grenade and automatic-rifle fire.

Winfield acknowledged he probably had the power to stop the murder. Winfield said he could have spoken out against the plot, or even turned his gun on a squad leader who pulled the victim away from his family.

Instead, Winfield said he opted to play along and appear to be part of the killing. After a grenade tossed by a squad leader blew off the victim’s legs, Winfield opened fire — aiming high to avoid hitting the Afghan.

“It is my duty as an American soldier to protect any detainee that is in the custody of U.S. personnel,” Winfield said. “It was my job to do that, sir, and I failed to do it.”

Winfield is one of five Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers accused in the killings of three unarmed Afghans in one of the most serious war-crimes cases to emerge from the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Winfield is the second of the five soldiers to reach a plea agreement. The other, Pvt. Jeremy Morlock, received 24 years for three counts of murder and other crimes.

Both Winfield and Morlock are expected to be important witnesses for the prosecution in the trial of Gibbs, who is charged with three murder counts for his role in the May 2 killing and two others in 2010.

The case gained international notoriety last spring with the publication of grisly photos of soldiers posing next to corpses. On Friday, one of the photos, which the media has not obtained, was displayed.

Blown up to the size of a poster, it depicted Winfield, Gibbs and Morlock posing with the corpse as if it were a trophy, said Capt. Jeremy Scholttes, an Army prosecutor.

Winfield initially was charged with premeditated murder. But he maintained he did not fire directly at the victim. As part of a plea deal, the charge was reduced to manslaughter for failing to intervene to halt the killing.

Winfield’s guilty plea to that charge and the use of hashish carried a maximum 17-year sentence. Under the plea deal, he could have received up to eight years.

On Friday, the judge, Col. David Conn, instead issued the three-year sentence.

In his early attempt to expose what was going on, Winfield contacted his parents. But an Army official who spoke with Winfield’s father failed to inform the brigade of the allegations.

“When you have a person who tries to do the right thing, the system should be there to support him,” said Eric Montalvo, Winfield’s defense attorney. “But here the system broke down.”

With credit for time served, Winfield could be released from prison in about a year, Montalvo said.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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