An Army staff sergeant accused of masterminding the murders of three Afghan civilians for sport gave his first public comments about the case at his court martial Friday, denying involvement in any plot but acknowledging he took fingers off their corpses "like keeping the antlers off a deer you'd shoot."

Wearing his green uniform decorated with service ribbons, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs of Billings, Mont., contradicted the accounts of co-defendants and fellow soldiers who portrayed him as an imposing, bloodthirsty sociopath. He said that as far as he knew, each of the killings was legitimate.

The 6-foot-4, 26-year-old Gibbs answered questions from his lawyer, Phil Stackhouse, before five military jurors, a judge and spectators — including his wife — at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle. When Stackhouse asked why he took the fingers, Gibbs said he wasn't proud that he had done so.

"I think I was trying to be hard, a hard individual, and not let it affect me," he testified. "In my mind, it was like keeping the antlers off a deer you'd shoot. ... You have to come to terms with the things you're doing."

He added that he tried to disassociate the corpses from the people they had been.

"Bodies in general didn't mean anything to me," he said.

Gibbs is the highest-ranking of five soldiers charged in the killings, which took place in January, February and May of last year. Prosecutors said Gibbs and his co-defendants slaughtered the victims with grenades and powerful machine guns during patrols in Kandahar province then dropped weapons near their bodies to make them appear to have been combatants.

Gibbs wasn't present for the first killing but was accused of a providing an "off-the-books" grenade to then-Cpl. Jeremy Morlock of Wasilla, Alaska, who used it when he and Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes, of Boise, Idaho, killed an Afghan teenager. Morlock and Holmes have pleaded guilty to murder.

Gibbs was accused of direct involvement in the second and third killings. He testified that the second killing was legitimate because he came under fire, and that he had nothing to do with the third killing.

Two co-defendants and other soldiers have testified against Gibbs, but Stackhouse said in his opening statement that the co-defendants conspired to blame Gibbs for what they did.

The shocking case came to light in May 2010, after a soldier who was beaten by Gibbs and others for reporting drug use in the platoon told investigators that his comrades had deliberately killed civilians. The five soldiers were arrested in Afghanistan, along with several others who faced less serious charges, including assault and drug use.

Gibbs also acknowledged Friday that he beat up the whistleblower, Pvt. 1st Class Justin Stoner, whom he described as a coward. After administering the beating, Gibbs and Morlock returned to Stoner's bunk. Gibbs admitted he displayed two of the severed fingers as he and Morlock tried to persuade Stoner not to speak with investigators.

"I didn't think it would scare Stoner because he had already seen the fingers before," Gibbs said. "He didn't really react to it."

One of the defendants, then-Spc. Adam Winfield of Cape Coral, Fla., tried to blow the whistle on the plot after the first killing by sending Facebook messages home to his parents in which he warned that more killings were planned.

"If you talk to anyone on my behalf, I have proof that they are planning another one in the form of an AK-47 they want to drop on a guy," Winfield wrote.

Calls by Winfield's father to Lewis-McChord went unheeded, and before long two more Afghan civilians had been killed — one with the AK-47 found beside his body, prosecutors said. Winfield pleaded guilty in the final killing and said he took part because he feared Gibbs would hurt him if he didn't.

Gibbs' testimony Friday was at odds with that of the other witnesses, who said he began talking about killing civilians soon after he joined the unit in late 2009. In the second killing, Morlock — who is serving 24 years for the murders — said Gibbs killed an unarmed man after firing an illicit AK-47 into the wall of a compound and tossing the weapon at the man's feet to make him appear to have been an enemy.

But Gibbs maintained the engagement was legitimate. The man started firing with the AK-47, but the gun jammed, and he and Spc. Michael Wagnon, who is also charged in that killing, returned fire, Gibbs said.

"I was engaged by an enemy combatant," he said. "Luckily his weapon appeared to malfunction and I didn't die."

Wagnon's court martial is scheduled for January.

In the third killing, Gibbs contradicted testimony from Morlock and Winfield, who said Gibbs told them to shoot as he threw a grenade at an unarmed man.

Gibbs said he had nothing to do with that killing, and didn't even witness it. He ran toward the gunfire and saw Morlock and Winfield on the ground, firing into a cloud of dust, he said. Shortly before the shooting, he said, he had chastised the two of them for going outside the compound on their own.

During cross-examination, Maj. Robert Stelle sought to portray aspects of Gibbs' story as farfetched. According to Gibbs, he noted, the second incident took place when a lone Afghan man — with no other military-age men nearby, armed with an AK-47 with no extra ammunition — attacked an entire squad of heavily armed Americans.

Gibbs faces 16 charges, covering a range of allegations from premeditated murder to assault. In one instance, he's accused of ordering his men to fire on unarmed men in a field. No one was injured, and Gibbs insisted on the stand that one of the men in the field was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.

However, others who have testified about that shooting, including Staff Sgt. Robert Stevens, of Portland, Ore., who was at the time a close friend of Gibbs, said they knew the men were unarmed.

Gibbs could face up to life in prison if convicted. Four out of five jurors must agree for him to be convicted.


Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle