GI in Afghan killings faces death penalty

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Gene John­son

The Army will seek the death penalty against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, ac­cused of slay­ing 16 Afghan vil­lagers in March.

SEAT­TLE — The U.S. Army said Wed­nes­day it will seek the death penalty against the sol­dier ac­cused of killing 16 Afghan vil­lagers in a predawn ram­page in March, a de­ci­sion his lawyer called “to­tally ir­re­spon­si­ble.”

The an­nounce­ment fol­lowed a pre­trial hear­ing last month for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 39, who faces pre­med­i­tated mur­der and other charges in the at­tack on two vil­lages in south­ern Afghanistan.

The slay­ings drew such an­gry protests that the U.S. tem­po­rar­ily halted com­bat op­er­a­tions in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks be­fore Amer­i­can in­ves­ti­ga­tors could reach the crime scenes.

Pros­e­cu­tors said Bales left his re­mote south­ern Afghanistan base early on March 11, at­tacked one vil­lage and re­turned to the base, then slipped away again to at­tack an­other nearby com­pound. Of the 16 peo­ple killed, nine were chil­dren.

No date has been set for Bales’ court mar­tial, which will be held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seat­tle.

His civil­ian lawyer, John Henry Browne, said he met with Army of­fi­cials last week to ar­gue his client shouldn’t face the pos­si­bil­ity of the death penalty, given that Bales was serv­ing his fourth de­ploy­ment in a war zone when the killings oc­curred.

“The Army is not tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for Sgt. Bales and other sol­diers that the Army know­ingly sends into com­bat sit­u­a­tions with di­ag­nosed PTSD, con­cus­sive head in­juries and other in­juries,” Browne said. “The Army is try­ing to take the fo­cus off the fail­ure of its de­ci­sions, and the fail­ure of the war it­self, and mak­ing Sgt. Bales out to be a rogue sol­dier.”

Bales’ wife, Kari Bales, said in a state­ment Wed­nes­day that she and their chil­dren have been en­joy­ing their week­end vis­its with Bales at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and she hopes he re­ceives an im­par­tial trial.

“I no longer know if a fair trial for Bob is pos­si­ble, but it very much is my hope, and I will have faith,” she said.

Bales’ de­fense team has said the government’s case is in­com­plete, and out­side ex­perts have said a key is­sue go­ing for­ward will be to de­ter­mine if Bales suf­fered from post­trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

Dur­ing last month’s pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing, pros­e­cu­tors built a strong eye­wit­ness case against the veteran sol­dier, with troops re­count­ing how they saw Bales re­turn to the base alone, cov­ered in blood.

Afghan wit­nesses de­scribed the hor­ror of that night. A teenage boy re­called how the gun­man kept fir­ing as chil­dren scram­bled, yelling: “We are chil­dren! We are chil­dren!” A young girl in a bright head scarf re­called hid­ing be­hind her fa­ther as he was shot to death.

The U.S. mil­i­tary has not ex­e­cuted any­one since 1961. There are five men cur­rently fac­ing mil­i­tary death sen­tences, all for mur­ders. For Bales to face ex­e­cu­tion, the court­mar­tial jury must unan­i­mously find him guilty of pre­med­i­tated mur­der. They also must de­ter­mine that at least one ag­gra­vat­ing fac­tor ap­plies, such as mul­ti­ple or child vic­tims, and that the ag­gra­vat­ing fac­tor sub­stan­tially out­weighs any ex­ten­u­at­ing or mit­i­gat­ing cir­cum­stances.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 39, is charged with mur­der.

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