JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. (AP) — Afghan villagers will have a chance to sit face-to-face with Staff Sgt. Robert Bales for the first time since he stormed their mud-walled compounds in pre-dawn darkness and slaughtered 16 people, most of them women and children.
Bales, an Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., pleaded guilty in June in a deal to avoid the death penalty for the March 11, 2012, massacre. His sentencing begins Tuesday with the selection of military jurors whose only task will be to determine whether he is sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, or without it.
Army prosecutors have flown in nine Afghan villagers to testify at the hearing, which is expected to last about a week.
Several villagers testified by video link from Afghanistan during a hearing last year, including a young girl in a bright headscarf who described hiding behind her father as he was shot to death. Boys told of begging the soldier to spare them, yelling: “We are children! We are children!” A thick-bearded man told of being shot in the neck by a gunman from an arm’s length away.
The villagers, some of whom have expressed outrage that Bales is going to escape the death penalty, have not encountered him in person since the attack, nor have they heard him apologize. Bales, who told a judge at his plea hearing that he couldn’t explain why he committed the killings, did not say then that he was sorry, but his lawyers hinted that an apology might be forthcoming at his sentencing.
The Army has not identified the witnesses it has flown in from Afghanistan. They are expected to testify in Pashtun through an interpreter, a prosecutor said at a hearing Monday.
Bales’ attorneys have indicated they plan to present evidence that could warrant leniency, including that during at least one of his prior deployments to Iraq, Bales had been prescribed the anti-malaria drug mefloquine, known by its brand name Lariam. Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a new warning that the drug can cause long-term neurological damage and serious psychiatric side effects.
“Our general theme is that Sgt. Bales snapped,” said John Henry Browne, one of his civilian attorneys. “That’s kind of our mantra, and we say that because of all the things we know: the number of deployments, the head injuries, the PTSD, the drugs, the alcohol.”
Bales, on his fourth combat deployment, had been drinking and watching a movie with other soldiers at his remote post at Camp Belambay in Kandahar Province when he slipped away before dawn on March 11, 2012. Bales said he had also been taking steroids and snorting Valium.
Armed with a 9 mm pistol and an M-4 rifle, he attacked a village of mud-walled compounds called Alkozai then returned and woke up a fellow soldier to tell him about it. The soldier didn’t believe Bales and went back to sleep. Bales left again to attack a second village known as Najiban.
The massacre prompted such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before Army investigators could reach the crime scene.
At one point during his plea hearing, the judge, Col. Jeffery Nance, asked Bales why he killed the villagers.
Bales responded: “Sir, as far as why — I’ve asked that question a million times since then. There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did.”
If he is sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, Bales would be eligible in 20 years, but there’s no guarantee he’d receive it.
Browne declined to say who might testify on Bales’ behalf at the sentencing. At an earlier hearing, Bales’ lawyers said those who might testify include an aunt, who could speak about any family history of mental health issues; an older brother; a principal and football coach from Norwood High School in Norwood, Ohio, where Bales grew up; and his high school football teammate Marc Edwards, who went on to become a running back on NFL teams, including the 2002 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
A hearing was being held Monday on motions related to the sentencing. Among the issues still unclear is how the judge will ensure that prosecutors make no use of compelled statements Bales gave to Army doctors. The statements are protected by Bales’ Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and neither they nor any information derived from them can be used against him.
Prosecutors were inadvertently sent a copy of the statements by the judge in July, and they read them — even though military law experts say they should have immediately known they weren’t supposed to. Last week, the judge rejected a motion by Bales’ lawyers to have the entire prosecution team removed from the case.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.