TACOMA, Wash (Reuters) - A U.S. Army sergeant was convicted by court-martial on Thursday of murdering unarmed civilians and cutting fingers from corpses as ringleader of a rogue platoon that terrorized villagers in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.
The guilty verdict on all counts, returned after five hours of deliberations, carried an automatic life prison sentence, but the five-member jury panel then decided that Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, 26, would be eligible for parole in 8-1/2 years.
The verdict and sentence capped an 18-month investigation of the most egregious atrocities that U.S. military personnel have been convicted of committing during a decade of war in Afghanistan.
Pentagon officials have said the misconduct exposed by the case, which evolved from a probe of drug abuse within Gibbs' Stryker Brigade infantry unit, had damaged the image of the United States around the globe.
Photographs entered as evidence in the case showed Gibbs and other soldiers casually posing with bloodied Afghan corpses, drawing comparisons to the inflammatory Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq in 2004.
The decisions by the jury panel -- two enlisted personnel and three officers -- came on the eve of Veterans Day and followed a week and a half of testimony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma.
Gibbs, who has denied committing murder, declined to speak before sentencing.
His civilian lawyer, Phillip Stackhouse, asked the panel for leniency in its parole decision, saying Gibbs had ample time for reflection during his pretrial confinement and "is not the same person he was when he went to Afghanistan."
He added that his client wished for the chance to be reunited with his young son at some point in the future.
But military prosecutor Major Dre Leblanc argued against parole, reminding the panel that Gibbs had often said of the Afghan people he terrorized: "These people are all savages, look at how they live."
Gibbs was convicted on three counts of premeditated murder in the slayings of Afghan villagers last year that were disguised as legitimate combat engagements. Prosecutors said he acted as the chief instigator behind those killings and other assaults by members of his self-described "kill team".
Besides charges of murder, conspiracy and other offenses, he was found guilty of beating a soldier who reported hashish use to superiors and of military code violations for cutting fingers off bodies as war trophies. A single count of threatening another soldier was dismissed earlier this week.
Gibbs had maintained he was innocent of murder, insisting that two of the killings for which he was charged were in self defense and that he played no role in the other. He denied allegations of planting weapons near the bodies.
Testifying in his own defense on Friday, Gibbs said he had "disassociated" himself from his actions while in combat and likened the removal of fingers from dead bodies to the taking of antlers from a deer.
In closing arguments on Wednesday, defense lawyer Stackhouse cast Gibbs as a troubled soldier doing his best to bear up under tremendous stress in a hostile environment.
Stackhouse had sought to raise doubts about the prosecution's case by pointing to a lack of physical evidence in the case. He argued that key witnesses had testified under plea deals in which they received more lenient sentences than they otherwise might have faced.
He also seized on conflicting accounts by witnesses whose recollections, he said, were clouded by a "haze of hashish."
Prosecution witnesses had portrayed Gibbs as a blood-thirsty renegade who intimidated fellow soldiers and harbored a deep, ethnic hatred of the very people U.S. troops were sent to protect from Taliban forces.
His chief accuser was the ex-corporal described as Gibbs' right-hand man, Jeremy Morlock, who pleaded guilty to murder for his role in the same three killings and was sentenced in March to 24 years in prison under a deal with prosecutors to obtain his cooperation in the case.
Five soldiers from the infantry unit formerly called the 5th Stryker Brigade were accused of murder, though Gibbs and Morlock were the only ones charged with more than one killing.
A third co-defendant, Adam Winfield, has pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to three years in prison. A fourth, Michael Wagnon, still faces a court-martial.
Seven other men charged with lesser offenses in the investigation have received convictions and sentences ranging from demotion or dishonorable discharge to 60 days of hard labor and jail sentences of up to nine months.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston