A Russian-made grenade placed next to the body of an Afghan made credible the story U.S. soldiers told — that the man had tried to attack them before he was killed, a U.S. Army officer testified Monday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — In early May, when 2nd Lt. Stefan Moye came upon the dismembered body of an Afghan man, he had no reason to doubt the story outlined by his soldiers, he testified Monday.

Men in his unit said the Afghan had tried to attack them, and, as evidence, pointed to a Russian-made grenade that lay next to the corpse.

“The reason I wasn’t suspicious was that I saw this grenade that I had never seen before,” said Moye, who knew it wasn’t American made.

But the grenade actually had been carried around secretly by one of the soldiers to be used to stage a killing, according to Spc. Jeremy Morlock, who, in a videotaped interview and in sworn statements to investigators in Kandahar, Afghanistan, outlined the plot to kill this Afghan and two others. That day in May, the grenade was put next to the dead man to make a murder appear to be a justified battlefield action, he said.

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Army prosecutors, on the basis of those statements and other evidence, have charged Morlock with participating in the three murders and other crimes. In the hearing Monday, they sought to persuade a presiding Army officer to recommend a court-martial that could result in a penalty of up to life imprisonment or death.

Morlock, who has been held in detention, appeared in court in his Army uniform.

Morlock had taken a prescription muscle relaxer during his initial Kandahar interview, said investigators who testified Monday via telephone from Afghanistan. But they affirmed that Morlock under questioning was articulate, full of details and able to make good eye contact without slurring words.

“What you have is videotaped evidence of Spc. Morlock, in a completely normal manner, confessing to … homicides,” said Capt. Andre Leblanc, a prosecutor, at the Article 32 hearing.

Defense attorneys said Morlock never confessed to the killings and that his statements indicate other soldiers fired the fatal shots or tossed a fatal grenade. His attorneys questioned investigators’ claims that Morlock had been properly informed of his rights during the interviews and said his prescription-drug use should render the statement invalid as evidence. They noted that in the video Morlock frequently slumps in his chair or leans his head on the wall.

“No police officer or investigator in their right mind would interrogate a guy right after they popped a pill,” said Morlock attorney Michael Waddington.

Morlock is a 22-year-old from Wasilla, Alaska, who went to Afghanistan in summer 2009 with the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, (since renamed) and served nearly a year of tough duty in Kandahar province.

The information from his interviews in Kandahar has helped Army prosecutors piece together a wide-ranging case against soldiers in a troubled unit.

Waddington alleged widespread use of potent hashish at the base, and an Army criminal investigator, Special Agent Anderson Wagner, under questioning did not dispute the claim.

The investigation also has led to the retrieval of 60 to 70 photos of several soldiers, including Morlock, posing by Afghan corpses. Those photos are being closely held by the Army, which will allow only defense attorneys to view them at a secure location on the base.

So far, a dozen soldiers have been charged with a series of crimes ranging from possessing human body parts to assaulting a fellow soldier. Five of the soldiers, including Morlock, are charged with involvement in one or more of the murders.

Many of the accused were asked to testify on Monday but declined, citing their Fifth Amendment right that protects them against testimony that could result in self-incrimination.

Four other soldiers, including a first lieutenant, who have not been publicly charged with any crimes also invoked their right not to testify.

The hearing ended late Monday afternoon, and in the weeks ahead the Army command at the base is expected to decide whether to order a court-martial.

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

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