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Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, in a 2010 photo.
Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, in a 2010 photo. (MAX BECHERER, POLARIS IMAGES/THE WASHINGTON POST)

KABUL, Afghanistan — A former Army staff sergeant sentenced to life in prison for intentionally killing Afghan civilians and keeping their body parts as trophies has filed suit in federal court to have his convictions overturned.

Lawyers for Calvin Gibbs, 35, argued that his original counsel failed to present testimony that disputed his role in the killings of three people in 2010, and that his right to a fair trial had been violated.

The lawsuit is seeking the first civilian review of the case. All previous proceedings were held in military courts.

Gibbs is often referred to as the mastermind of the “kill team,” a group of American soldiers said to have orchestrated the premeditated murders of an unarmed 15-year-old boy and at least two other civilians during their deployment to southern Kandahar province a decade ago.

The soldiers from the 1st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, attracted international attention after photos surfaced showing them posing with Afghan corpses.

Members later confessed fingers and other body parts were removed from victims to keep as war souvenirs.

Five soldiers in the platoon were found guilty of murder in 2011. Gibbs was convicted of three cases of premeditated murder, three cases of conspiracy, possessing the remains of an Afghan corpse and several other crimes.

The lawsuit submitted to the U.S. District Court in Kansas on Tuesday argues that Gibbs’ defense lawyer, Phillip Stackhouse, failed to call on two witnesses whose testimonies may have cleared Gibbs of the most serious charges against him.

“Staff Sgt. David Bram and Spc. Michael Wagnon were known to the defense to possess exculpatory and mitigating testimony tending to exonerate Gibbs [of one of the conspiracies and murders],” the document says. “And their testimony stood to negate the credibility of the prosecution’s main witness.”

That witness was platoon member Cpl. Jeremy Morlock, who like Gibbs was charged in all three killings, and who Gibbs’ defense team described as the true mastermind.

Morlock said in court that it was Gibbs who generated the idea of killing civilians and disguising the murders as lawful combatant engagements.

The lawsuit says the Gibbs’ military court appeal was flawed because he was represented by the same lawyers as at the previous trial, which represented a conflict of interest.

The federal court said Wednesday that the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks has until Feb. 28 to reply to the lawsuit. Twitter: @pwwellman

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