Robert Bales: U.S. soldier accused of murdering 16 Afghan civilians must face the death penalty, say prosecutors

  • Robert Bales, 39, is charged with killing 16 Afghans - including nine children - in a rogue attack last March
  • Army prosecutors asked the investigative officer overseeing the preliminary hearing to recommend a death penalty court-martial for the staff sergeant
  • The U.S. military has not executed a service member since 1961
  • The soldier is accused of slipping away from his base in southern Afghanistan to attack two villages
  • Soldiers have testified that Bales returned to the base covered in blood

By Associated Press and Kerry Mcdermott

PUBLISHED: 03:53 EST, 14 November 2012 | UPDATED: 06:17 EST, 14 November 2012

On trial: Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, seen in 2011, is on trial for the murder of 16 Afghans slain in the early hours of March 11

On trial: Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, seen in 2011, is on trial for the murder of 16 Afghans slain in the early hours of March 11

Army prosecutors say the U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in a murderous rampage must face the death penalty for his 'heinous and despicable crimes'.

Attorneys asked the investigative officer overseeing a preliminary hearing to recommend a death penalty court-martial for Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, as they made their closing arguments at the end of a week of testimony.

Bales, 39, is accused of slipping away from his remote base at Camp Belambay in southern Afghanistan to attack two villages early on March 11 - nine children were among the dead.

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.

'Terrible, terrible things happened,' said prosecutor Major Rob Stelle. 'That is clear.'

Maj. Stelle cited statements Bales made after he was apprehended, saying that they demonstrated 'a clear memory of what he had done, and consciousness of wrong-doing'.

Several soldiers testified that Bales returned to the base alone just before dawn, covered in blood, and that he made incriminating statements such as, 'I thought I was doing the right thing'.

An attorney for Bales argued that there was not enough information to move forward with the court-martial.

'There are a number of questions that have not been answered so far in this investigation,' attorney Emma Scanlan told the investigating officer overseeing the preliminary hearing.

Scanlan said that it is still unknown what Bales' state of mind was the evening of the killings.

An Army criminal investigations command special agent had testified last week that Bales tested positive for steroids three days after the killings, and other soldiers testified that Bales had been drinking the evening of the massacre.

'We've heard that Sgt. Bales was lucid, coherent and responsive,' Scanlan said in her closing argument.

'We don't know what it means to be on alcohol, steroids and sleeping aids,' she added.

Accused: This courtroom sketch shows Staff Sgt Bales on the final day of his preliminary hearing at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington, U.S.

Accused: This courtroom sketch shows Staff Sgt Bales on the final day of his preliminary hearing at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington, U.S.

The investigating officer said at Tuesday's hearing that he would have a written recommendation by the end of the week, but that is just the start of the process.

'Terrible, terrible things happened. That is clear'

Prosecutor Major Rob Stelle

That recommendation goes next to the brigade command, and the ultimate decision would be made by the three-star general on the base.

There's no clear sense of how long that could take before a decision is reached on whether to proceed to a court-martial trial.

If a court-martial takes place, it will be held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Washington state base south of Seattle, and witnesses will be flown in from Afghanistan.

The military hasn't executed a service member since 1961, and none of the six men on death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, today were convicted for atrocities against foreign civilians. All of their crimes involved the killing of U.S. civilians or fellow service members.

In the most recent high-profile case at Joint Base Lewis-McChord before Bales, the Army did not seek a death penalty court-martial against five soldiers accused of killing three Afghan civilians for sport. In that case, the ringleader was sentenced to life in prison with possibility of parole.

Bales faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder. The preliminary hearing, which began on November 5, included nighttime sessions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the convenience of the Afghan witnesses. Bales did not testify.

'We are proud to stand by him': The soldier's wife Kari Bales, left, is seen with her sister Stephanie Tandberg, right, outside the military courtroom yesterday

'We are proud to stand by him': The soldier's wife Kari Bales, left, is seen with her sister Stephanie Tandberg, right, outside the military courtroom yesterday

Emma Scanlan, defence attorney for Bales, has said there is insufficient information to move foward with a death penalty court-martial

Emma Scanlan, defence attorney for Bales, has said there is insufficient information to move foward with a death penalty court-martial

The witnesses included a seven-year-old girl, who described how she hid behind her father when a gunman came to their village that night, how the stranger fired, and how her father died, cursing in pain and anger.

None of the Afghan witnesses were able to identify Bales as the shooter, but other evidence, including tests of the blood on his clothes, implicated him, according to testimony from a DNA expert.

After the hearing concluded, Scanlan spoke with reporters, saying that in addition to questions about Bales' state of mind, there are still questions of whether there were more people involved.

'We all grieve deeply for the Afghani families who lost their loved ones...but we must all not rush to judgement'

Statement from Staff Sgt. Bales' family

 

Scanlan also raised the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injury, noting that Bales had received a screening at the traumatic brain injury clinic at Madigan Army Medical Center during a period of time that the center is under investigation for reversing hundreds of PTSD diagnoses of soldiers since 2007.

'We're in the process of investigating that,' she said.

The attorney refused to confirm if Bales had ever been diagnosed with PTSD.

Bales' wife, Kari, and her sister, Stephanie Tandberg, met with reporters briefly after the hearings concluded.

Ms Tandberg read a statement, saying 'we all grieve deeply for the Afghani families who lost their loved ones on March 11, but we must all not rush to judgment'.

Last week, the lead prosecutor, Lt. Col. Jay Morse, said on the night of the killings Bales watched a movie about a former CIA agent on a revenge killing spree, with two fellow soldiers, while drinking contraband whiskey. Morse said Bales first attacked one village, Alkozai, returned to the base at Camp Belambay, then headed out again to attack a second village, Najiban.

Bales returned to the base covered in blood, Morse said, and his incriminating statements indicate he was 'deliberate and methodical'.

In the family statement, Ms Tandberg said: 'We all want very much to know how, why, and what happened ... Much of the testimony was painful, even heartbreaking, but we are not convinced the government has shown us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about what happened that night ... We know Bob as bright, courageous and honorable, as a man who is a good citizen, soldier, son, husband, father, uncle and sibling.

'We in Bob's family are proud to stand by him.'

Survivor: Sadiquallah, a young boy of about 13 or 14, is sketched left at an earlier hearing during his testimony against Bales, right, after surviving the attack despite a bullet grazing his skull

Home invasion: Sadiquallah's father, Haji Naim, was the first to be shot in his home, testifying how he saw the shooter climb over a wall with a light on his head before firing

Home invasion: Sadiquallah's father, Haji Naim, was the first to be shot in his home, testifying how he saw the shooter climb over a wall with a light on his head before firing

The stories recounted by the villagers during testimony have been harrowing. They described torched bodies, a son finding his wounded father, and boys cowering behind a curtain while others screamed 'We are children! We are children!'

One girl, Robina, who was shot in the leg, told how she hid behind her father when the gunman came to her village, and how her father died as shots were fired.

Bales sat quietly throughout, betraying no reaction to what he heard. Robina's friend, Zardana, now eight, also testified, but only briefly to describe what the shooter was wearing.

Zardana suffered a gunshot wound to the top of her head, and when she arrived at a nearby military base, the doctors focused on treating the other injured victims first. They figured Zardana had no chance of surviving.

After two months at a military hospital in Afghanistan and three more at a Navy hospital in San Diego, she can walk and talk again.

The Afghan witnesses recounted the villagers who lived in the attacked compounds and listed the names of those killed, to provide a record of the lives lost.

The bodies were buried quickly under Islamic custom, and no forensic evidence was available to prove the number of victims.

The military courtroom on Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington, U.S., where the preliminary hearing was held

The military courtroom on Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington, U.S., where the preliminary hearing was held

Sadiquallah, a slight boy of about 13 or 14 whose head rose just above his chair at the witness table, described being awakened by a neighbor screaming that an American had 'killed our men'.

He said he and another boy, Zardana's brother, ran to hide in a storage room and ducked behind a curtain. It provided no protection from the bullet that grazed his head and fractured his skull. Sadiquallah said the shooter had a gun and a light, but he could not identify the man.

The other child was hit in the thigh and also survived. That boy, Rafiullah, testified on Saturday that an American had attacked them and put a gun in his sister's mouth.

His father, Samiullah, was away when the shootings occurred, and testified that by the time he returned the next morning, his two wounded children had been driven to a base for treatment. He found his mother among the four corpses at the compound.

'I just saw her, I cried, and I could not look on her face,' he said.

Prosecutors said that in between his attacks, Bales woke a fellow soldier, reported what he'd done and said he was headed out to kill more. The soldier testified that he didn't believe what Bales said, and went back to sleep.

During cross-examination of several witnesses at the hearing, Bales' attorney, John Henry Browne, sought to elicit testimony about whether there might have been more than one shooter.

One Army Criminal Investigations Command special agent testified that several months after the massacre, she took a statement from one woman whose husband was killed.

The woman reported that there were two soldiers in her room - one took her husband out of the room and shot him, and the other held her back when she tried to follow.

But other eyewitnesses reported that there was just one shooter, and several soldiers have testified that Bales returned to his base at Camp Belambay, just before dawn, alone and covered in blood.

A video taken from a surveillance blimp also captured a sole figure returning to the base.

Sorry we are unable to accept comments for legal reasons.

By Staff 11/13/2012 22:17:00