Holding Murderers Accountable, American Style
Army sergeant Joseph Bozicevich was sentenced Wednesday to life in military prison without parole. He was convicted of killing his fellow soldiers, Staff Sgt. Darris Dawson and Sgt. Wesley Durbin, at a small patrol base outside Baghdad in September 2008. An argument between Bozicevich and his two slain colleagues arose after they had criticized him for poor performance. Bozicevich testified that he fired in self-defense after the two soldiers threatened him with guns, which he allegedly fought out of their possession and then blindly fired at them with his rifle while fleeing. ”I sprayed and I prayed,” he told the jury. Bozicevich’s civilian defense attorney, Charles Gittins, said he accomplished his main goal, avoiding the death penalty for Bozicevich, since military law demands premeditated murder be punishable by death provided a military jury returns a unanimous conviction. But in the end, life without the chance of parole was the price for these murders.
Four days earlier, Adam Winfield was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, having initially been charged with premeditated murder*, the same charge as Sgt. Bozicevich. Winfield was a participant in the “Kill Team” in Afghanistan, the army unit that planned and committed executions of multiple innocent, unarmed Afghan civilians, framing the dead as having been a threat, and mutilating their corpses as trophies. Photographs can be see of the soldiers in the “Kill Team” proudly posing next to the dead and bloodied civilians, smiling and lifting their heads like some deer killed for sport. Winfield agreed to a plea deal with military prosecutors and was sentenced to 3 years in prison. Winfield had come forward and helped publicize the murders of the “Kill Team,” claiming only to have been complicit, but not ever shooting the civilians.
Corporal Jeremy Morlock, who tossed a grenade at an unarmed 15 year old civilian Afghan and then shot the boy repeatedly at close range with a machine gun, was sentenced in March to 24 years in prison. He is eligible for parole in 7 years.
The “Kill Team” staged many executions of civilians, at least three that the trial is considering, staging them all as self-defense by planting weapons on the victims. According to the Rolling Stone article that exposed these crimes, “staged killings were an open topic of conversation” within the platoon, and the “Kill Team” had “‘a reputation,’ a whistle-blower named Pfc. Justin Stoner told the Army Criminal Investigation Command. ‘They have had a lot of practice staging killings and getting away with it.’”
The brutality of the “Kill Team” is striking. They also murdered an unarmed man who may have been either deaf or mentally challenged. The man had half his skull blown off, and one member of the kill team collected it after the incident and carried it around as a trophy souvenir.
Other members of the “Kill Team” have yet to be sentenced.
Why the discrepancy in prison sentences? The charges were the same in these three cases, although Winfield and Morlock made a plea deal to testify against others in their unit. But that possibility of leniency still looms for most of the rest of the members too. If Joseph’s Bozicevich’s testimony is true and he shot his fellow soldiers while running away after an argument in which they threatened him with guns, the premeditated crimes of the “Kill Team,” repeated over a matter of months in multiple incidents and boasted about afterwards, seem much worse. Yet here we have one “Kill Team” member with a mere 3 year sentence, and another with 24 years, with possible parole in 7 years.
Is it possible Bozicevich got a harsher sentence, and less sympathy, because he murdered American soldiers? Is it also possible that the prosecution, the jury, and the American media are more comfortable with the depraved serial killers of the “Kill Team” getting lenient sentences because their victims were Afghans, instead of Americans?
This kind of bias against the value of Afghan lives compared to the value of American lives came up earlier this week with the media coverage of the 30 American soldiers killed in the helicopter shootdown in Afghanistan. The media focus on the lives of the slain U.S. servicemen was remarkable contrasted with the 1,462 Afghan civilians killed from January to June. The mainstream media – Fox, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, etc. – missed literally thousands of opportunities to focus Americans’ attention on the lives of lost Afghans, all civilians. Nowhere close to the amount of emotional coverage was given to, say, the 50 civilians attending a wedding party who were murdered from the sky with U.S. bombs.
But somehow, those nameless, faceless, voiceless little Afghans don’t carry as much weight as do the lives of American servicemen, whether they’re killed in a dispute with a fellow soldier, or they’re sentenced to years in prison for plotting, murdering, mutilating, and boasting about it. This is precisely the mentality which gives credence to such failed and needless violent adventures as the war in Afghanistan.
Forget these most extreme examples. Consider the mundane Tuesday morning news about 25 Pakistanis being killed from a drone strike. Or the quiet news Thursday that three Afghan civilians were shot by NATO troops. Or the 85 Libyan civilians reported killed by NATO bombs the other day - that’s 33 children, 32 women, and 20 men – for which Amnesty International has now called an investigation. Who should pay for those crimes? Who ought to sit in jail for the loss of those lives? Whose plea bargain will be reported upon unassumingly for these fathers and mothers and best friends killed with the press of a red button?
Joseph Bozicevich will sit in prison for the rest of his life without the opportunity to ever again know freedom. If he deserves that fate, then the “Kill Team” surely deserves the same. The pity is that to whatever considerable extent the thousands of killed Afghans remain forever nameless, faceless, and voiceless, that same level of uncredited exemption continues to flow to the highest reaches of our government, who represent the “Kill Team” a hundred times over.
* The original language of this post incorrectly reported Winfield as having been convicted of premeditated murder. He was actually convicted of involuntary manslaughter, having had his initial charge of premeditated murder dropped when he agreed to a plea bargain. Thank you to a reader for having noticed it, prompting the correction. However, the correct version merely serves to validate the argument I’ve made that reduced sentences, or total impunity is very often given to those who commit crimes on “others,” yet not on Americans, who appear unconsciously to hold greater worth. A complete reading of the investigative reports on the “Kill Team” will make that even clearer than I’ve made it here in my post, since there was an initial effort by the military to prevent these crimes from being publicized and obstruct the justice that very dearly needed to be served.