Bales to plead guilty to avoid death penalty

Staff writerMay 29, 2013 

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, left, is shown during an exercise at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., Aug. 23.(U.S Army Photo)

(U.S ARMY PHOTO)

The Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker soldier accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians last year plans to plead guilty to the killings next week in a deal that will spare him the death penalty, his attorney said Wednesday.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ plea hearing is set for Wednesday, an Army official told The News Tribune.

Bales, a married father of two young children formerly of Lake Tapps, must give a full account of the killings and persuade a judge that he understands the charges against him.

He will plead guilty to 16 counts of premeditated murder, defense attorney John Henry Browne said.

Bales’ testimony will mark his first public discussion of two nighttime forays outside his combat outpost in Kandahar Province to slaughter Afghans in separate villages.

His guilty plea, however, would not entirely resolve his case. It guarantees him a life sentence, though he could win a chance for parole at a two-week sentencing trial later this year, his attorney said.

That trial will take place in front of a military jury, Browne said.

At that time, Browne plans to present evidence that could shed light on Bales’ state of mind when he reportedly sneaked out of Village Stability Platform Belambay twice in the early hours of March 11, 2012, to kill civilians.

Browne has suggested in press interviews that Bales, a veteran of four deployments with a Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade, suffered from a traumatic brain injury and undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. He also had access to alcohol and steroids, according to testimony at his pretrial hearing.

Resolving the trial through a plea agreement would help the Army close out an ugly chapter of the war in Afghanistan.

It also could disappoint relatives of Bales’ victims who have told reporters that they want the four-time combat veteran to receive capital punishment.

“This is my request: justice,” Mullah Khamal Adin, who lost 11 relatives to Bales’ massacre, said over a video link during a November pretrial hearing at Lewis-McChord.

Bales, 39, served for a decade with the Army’s original Stryker brigade — the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He was well regarded as a soldier, according to friends and mentors who testified at his November hearing.

The military has not executed a soldier since 1961. Five service members are on death row, all for killing other service members or American civilians.

The military more commonly hands down life sentences for war crimes.

Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the ringleader of a group of Lewis-McChord soldiers who murdered three Afghan civilians in 2010, for instance, received a life sentence with a shot at a parole at his November 2011 court-martial.

A Bales plea deal and sentencing trial means that three of the U.S. military’s worst war crimes of the past decade will get a full airing in a Lewis-McChord courtroom — two in the span of a year.

Earlier this month, an Army judge sentenced Sgt. John Russell to life without parole for murdering five fellow American service members at a Baghdad combat stress clinic in 2009. Russell had a plea agreement that capped his sentence at life.

As with Russell, the Bales case promises to provide several days of gripping testimony even after a plea. But unlike with Russell, Bales will acknowledge premeditation in his crimes, his attorney said.

Emma Scanlan, one of Bales’ attorneys, attended several days of Russell’s court-martial.

Bales last appeared in court in April when his attorneys made a case to bring several of his friends and family from his hometown in Ohio to his court-martial, where they would testify as character witnesses. If the plea agreement is accepted, they likely still would be called for his sentencing.

It’s not clear whether the Army would follow through on plans to bring Afghan witnesses to Lewis-McChord for any future hearings. The Army had been preparing to bring several of them to the base south of Tacoma.

A group of Afghan men and children testified at the pretrial hearing last fall through a video link to a base in Kandahar province. In March, six Afghan witnesses visited Lewis-McChord to make themselves familiar with the area if they’re called to testify.

Bales allegedly wounded six people in addition to the 16 murder victims. Nine of those killed were teenagers or younger.

“We kept saying, ‘We are children, we are children,’” an 11-year-old named Quadratullah testified at the November hearing.

An Army surveillance camera captured an image of Bales walking back to Belambay, where fellow soldiers apprehended him. They said he was wearing a sheet like a cape.

“I just shot up some people,” Bales told one of his friends after the first round of killings, according to testimony in November.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/military

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