SEATTLE — Those who have seen the photos say they are grisly: soldiers beside newly killed bodies, decaying corpses and severed fingers.
The dozens of photos, described in interviews and in e-mails and military documents obtained by the Associated Press, were seized by Army investigators and are a crucial part of the case against five soldiers accused of killing three Afghan civilians earlier this year.
Troops allegedly shared the photos by e-mail and thumb drive-like electronic trading cards. Now 60 to 70 of them are being kept tightly shielded from the public and even defense attorneys because of fears they could wind up in the news media and provoke anti-American violence.
"We're in a powder-keg situation here," said Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute for Military Justice and a military law professor at Yale University.
Since the images are not classified, "I think they have to be released if they're going to be evidence in open court in a criminal prosecution," he said.
Maj. Kathleen Turner, a spokeswoman for Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Seattle, where the accused soldiers are stationed, acknowledged that the images were "highly sensitive, and that's why that protective order was put in place." She declined to comment further.
At least some of the photos pertain to those killings. Others may have been of insurgents killed in battle, and some may have been taken as part of a military effort to document those killed, according to lawyers involved in the case.
Among the most gruesome allegations is that some of the soldiers kept fingers from the bodies of Afghans they killed as war trophies. The troops also are accused of passing around photos of the dead and of the fingers.
Four members of the unit — two of whom are also charged in the killings — have been accused of wrongfully possessing images of human casualties, and another is charged with trying to impede an investigation by having someone erase incriminating evidence from a computer hard drive.
"Everyone would share the photographs," one of the defendants, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock, told investigators. "They were of every guy we ever killed in Afghanistan."
After the first slaying, one service member sent urgent e-mails to his father warning that more bloodshed was on the way. The father told the AP he pleaded for help from the military, but authorities took no action. A spokesman said Friday that the Army was investigating.