The Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier who murdered 16 Afghan civilians in a nighttime rampage last year is in court this week fighting for a chance to one day receive parole from his expected life sentence.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales must make his case in front of survivors of the massacre. The Army flew out nine Afghan villagers to testify. Some were wounded in the shootings; others are mourning loved ones he killed.
Bales, 39, in June admitted that he twice snuck out of his combat outpost in Kandahar Province in March 2012 to slaughter Afghans in separate villages with a pistol and rifle. His guilty plea spared him a possible death sentence.
“I’m just trying to do the right thing,” he said in court Monday at a pretrial hearing laying out some of the ground rules for this week’s trial.
Murder carries a mandatory minimum life sentence under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, meaning the best possible outcome for Bales this week would be a life sentence with an opportunity for parole. He’d be eligible after serving 20 years in confinement.
His attorneys plan to argue that a set of extreme emotional, physical and chemical influences caused the soldier to lose control of himself on what his fourth combat deployment with a Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
A pretrial hearing Monday gave hints at the dramatic testimony that could unfold over the week before a jury panel of five to 10 senior soldiers.
Several Afghan survivors of the attack testified at a pretrial hearing last November in which they described an American soldier killing their loved ones directly in front of them. “We are children!” one boy said he shouted as the killer shot one of his relatives.
Prosecutors said they have a tape of Bales and his wife, Kari, laughing about at least one of the criminal charges the Army pressed against him. Prosecutors also have a tape of a conversation in which the couple discusses a possible book deal for Kari.
Defense attorneys said the excerpts need more context if a jury panel hears them. As a result, more than two hours of Bales’ conversations with his wife could be heard in court so the military jurors can understand what they were saying.
Prosecutors are preparing to describe Bales’ checkered past to counter likely defense arguments that Bales carried out the massacre in part because he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and a past head injury from one of his three Iraq deployments.
Before enlisting, he was accused of defrauding an elderly couple and an arbitrator leveled a $1.5 million fine against him. He reportedly ignored the penalty.
He was arrested in Tacoma in July 2002 following a drunken fight at a local casino. The incident happened before his first deployment. He was arrested again on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol in University Place in 2005. In 2008, he was cited for a misdemeanor hit and run in Sumner.
Prosecutors contend those crimes, as well as other reported infractions that did not lead to criminal charges, are as relevant to Bales’ character as any mental health diagnosis.
“The defense experts want this to be about PTSD, (a head injury), and some concoction he was on. They do not want it to be about personality disorder,” said Army prosecutor Maj. John Riesenberg.
Before the massacre, Bales was known as a father of two who had proven himself on three combat tours in Iraq. He looked forward to a solid future in the military, and was popular at the Tacoma chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Bales at his plea hearing could not explain what led him to turn his weapon on civilians – including nine children – in their homes. “There’s not a good reason in the world for why I did the horrible things I did,” he said.
Bales’ leaders handed him a tough assignment on his last tour because they thought he was up to it, they testified at a pretrial hearing. He was assigned to an infantry battalion that was splintered up into small groups throughout southern Afghanistan supporting Special Forces teams. As a result, Bales was not in eyesight of his normal chain of command.
Things went awry at his outpost, Village Stability Platform Belambay in Kandahar’s Panjwai District. Bales took steroids and drank alcohol, according to court testimony. He was under the influence of both substances in the early hours of March 11, 2012, when he slaughtered the villagers.
The Special Forces unit he supported reportedly suffered a nonfatal casualty in the weeks before the massacre, and soldiers testified at a pretrial hearing last year that Bales wanted to be more aggressive in pursuing the attackers.
Bales’ attorneys have said to reporters that the soldier had received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and a past head injury prior to his last deployment. He returned to his outpost from the killing spree bizarrely wearing a sheet like a cape, according to a surveillance video Army prosecutors presented at a pretrial hearing last year.
Bales may have been taking an anti-malaria drug called Lariam that has been associated with neurological and psychological side effects. The Food and Drug Administration last year received a notice suggesting a soldier taking the medicine had killed “17 Afghanis,” an apparent reference to Bales.
However, soldiers from his unit were handed a different anti-malaria drug when they deployed out of Lewis-McChord. Emma Scanlan, one of Bales’ attorneys, said on Monday that the defense team will not present evidence regarding Lariam.