The U.S. soldier accused of carrying out one of the worst atrocities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars
The U.S. soldier accused of carrying out one of the worst atrocities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was appearing in a military courtroom today, where prosecutors will lay out their case that he killed 16 people, including children, during a predawn raid on two villages in the Taliban's heartland.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a married father of two, is accused of slipping away from a remote outpost in southern Afghanistan early on March 11 with an M-4 rifle outfitted with a grenade launcher to attack the villages of Balandi and Alkozai in Panjwai district of Kandahar Province.
Nine of the dead were children, and 11 were members of the same family. Six others were wounded, and some of the bodies were set afire. Bales faces 16 counts of premeditated murder, plus other charges of attempted murder, assault and using steroids.
Today marks the start of a preliminary hearing before an investigative officer charged with recommending whether Bales' case should proceed to a court-martial. Part of the hearing will be held overnight to allow video testimony from witnesses in Afghanistan.
"This hearing is important for all of us in terms of learning what the government can actually prove," said Bales' attorney, John Henry Browne.
Bales, 39, joined the Army in late 2001 after the 9/11 attacks and as his career as a stockbroker imploded.
He was serving his fourth combat tour after three stints in Iraq, and his arrest prompted a national discussion about the stresses posed by multiple deployments. Another of his civilian attorneys, Emma Scanlan, declined to say to what extent the lawyers hope to elicit testimony that could be used to support a mental-health defense.
Bales himself will not make any statements, his lawyers said, because they don't think he would have anything to gain by it. During such hearings, defendants have the right to make sworn or unsworn statements. Making a sworn statement opens the defendant to cross-examination by the prosecutors.
No motive has emerged. Bales' wife, Karilyn, who plans to attend the hearing, had complained about financial difficulties on her blog in the year before the killings, and she had noted that Bales was disappointed at being passed over for a promotion.
Browne has also said that Bales suffered a traumatic incident during his second Iraq tour that triggered "tremendous depression." Bales remembers little or nothing from the time of the attacks, his lawyers have said.
Testimony from witnesses, including an estimated 10 to 15 Afghans, could help fill in many of the details about how prosecutors believe Bales carried out the attack. American officials have said they believe Bales broke the slaughter into two episodes — walking first to one village, returning to the base and slipping away again to carry out the second attack.
Some witnesses suggested that there might have been more than one killer. Browne said he was aware of those statements but noted that such a scenario would not help his client avoid culpability.
Bales, who spent months in confinement at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, before being transferred to Lewis-McChord last month, is doing well, Scanlan said.
"He's getting prepared," she said, "but it's nerve-wracking for anybody."