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Jury selection begins for soldier accused in Afghan shootings

By Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
U.S. Army soldiers make their way to the Zabul Juvenile Detention Facility in Qalat, Afghanistan, on May 11.
U.S. Army soldiers make their way to the Zabul Juvenile Detention Facility in Qalat, Afghanistan, on May 11.
  • Sgt. Darren Jones has pleaded not guilty
  • He is accused of shooting at civilians and participating in a coverup
  • His lawyer says there is no evidence Jones killed or wounded anyone

(CNN) -- Jury selection begins Thursday for an Army sergeant charged in what military authorities say was a conspiracy by a group of soldiers to kill Afghan civilians for sport and then cover it up.

Sgt. Darren Jones is one of 12 soldiers, all members of the Washington-based 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, accused in a case that strained U.S. relations with Afghanistan after details emerged that some of the soldiers allegedly posed with dead Afghans and collected souvenirs from the killings.

Jones is one of six soldiers facing trial and the only one not charged with killing Afghans. Six other soldiers, including one who posed for photos with a dead Afghan, have accepted plea deals.

Jones, who faces courts-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault and conspiracy to commit assault and battery.

The government maintains that sometime in March 2010, Jones along with other soldiers opened fire on three Afghan men near Forward Operating Base Ramrod, in the volatile Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. The Army charge sheet, which spells out the allegations against Jones, does not provide the date of the shooting, the identities of the victims or whether they were wounded.

There is no evidence Jones killed or wounded any Afghan civilians, his lawyer, Kevin McDermott, told CNN late Wednesday

"They're calling it aggravated assault, even though he didn't hit anybody," McDermott said.

"There is no forensic evidence, no ballistic, no bodies, no identities."

A telephone call by CNN late Wednesday to the prosecutor's office at Joint Base Lewis-McChord went unanswered.

The military also alleges that Jones, 30, of Brea, California, joined others in his unit in the May 2010 beating of a fellow soldier to prevent him from talking to investigators about the killings and other misconduct at the base in southern Afghanistan.

McDermott said Jones was never interviewed by military investigators about his alleged role.

The government alleges the killing-for-sport plan was hatched by Staff Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs, 25, of Billings, Montana, and that the group began killing civilians in January 2010.

The case drew international outrage in March when Der Spiegel, a German news magazine, published photos that showed two of the accused -- Spec. Jeremy Morlock and Pfc. Andrew Holmes -- posing over dead bodies of Afghans.

The U.S. Army apologized for any distress caused by the photos, calling the photographs "repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States Army."

Army officials asserted in the statement that ongoing court-martial proceedings related to the alleged atrocities "speak for themselves. The photos appear in stark contrast to the discipline, professionalism and respect that have characterized our soldiers' performance during nearly 10 years of sustained operations."

In March 2011, Morlock of Wasilla, Alaska, pleaded guilty to killing Afghan civilians in a deal that sentenced him to 24 years in prison and positioned him to be the prosecution's key witness against the other soldiers still facing trial.

Among those facing murder charges are Holmes of Boise, Idaho; Spec. Adam Winfield of Cape Coral, Florida; Spec. Michael Wagnon of Las Vegas and Gibbs.

Holmes is charged with the premeditated deaths of three civilians, possessing a dismembered human finger, wrongfully possessing photographs of human casualties and smoking hashish.

He is also accused of conspiring with Morlock to shoot at a civilian and then toss a grenade so it would look like the soldiers were under attack.

Authorities allege Gibbs kept finger bones, leg bones and a tooth from Afghan corpses. Wagnon allegedly kept a skull from a corpse, according to charging documents.

All five accused in the killings have pleaded not guilty.