Death penalty wanted for soldier accused of Afghan massacre
TACOMA, Wash. — An eight-day hearing for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales wrapped up Tuesday with an Army prosecutor saying Bales should face the death penalty for committing “the worst, most despicable crimes a human being can commit, murdering children in their own homes.”
Maj. Rob Stelle’s argument concluded a preliminary hearing in which the Army laid out eyewitness testimony, surveillance video and DNA evidence connecting Bales, 39, to the slaughter of 16 civilians, including nine children, in southern Afghanistan.
But Bales’ attorney and family urged caution by the officers responsible for deciding whether the Joint Base Lewis-McChord combat veteran should advance to a full court-martial that could put him on death row.
“As a family, we all grieve deeply for the Afghani families who lost their loved ones on March 11, but we must not rush to judgment,” Bales’ sister-in-law Stephanie Tandberg said outside the Lewis-McChord court building after the hearing. She stood next to Kari Bales, the defendant’s wife.
Last spring’s massacre amounts to the worst alleged war crimes of the 11-year conflict in Afghanistan. It took on a human face over the past week as the Army called on four children Bales allegedly wounded to testify against him through a video link from Kandahar province.
“Two things are clear,” Stelle said. “One, something horrible happened around Village Stability Platform Belambay (Bales’ outpost) …
“The other thing that is clear is that Staff Sgt. Bales did it,” the prosecutor said.
The next step calls on Col. Lee Deneke, the Army Reserve judicial officer who oversaw the hearing, to write a report recommending whether Bales should face a general court-martial, and whether the death penalty should be on the table at that trial. Lewis-McChord senior Army officer Lt. Gen. Robert Brown would likely make the final call.
Bales has not been arraigned and will not have to make a plea until well after Deneke finishes his report some time this weekend.
Emma Scanlan, Bales’ attorney, had asked Deneke to delay the preliminary hearing to give the defense more time to gather evidence. For instance, she said the defense team is still trying to determine if Bales received substandard care at Madigan Army Medical Center for a head injury on a past deployment.
Deneke declined to put off the hearing, and Scanlan on Tuesday urged him to be careful in recommending whether Bales should face the death penalty. Murder carries a mandatory minimum life sentence under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“There are unanswered questions about mental state, about timeline, about who this man is,” Scanlan said.
Bales is a husband, a father of two and an Ohio native who used to live in Lake Tapps. He spent his entire Army career with the same Stryker Brigade at Lewis-McChord. He was a well-respected soldier, but he had trouble in his past, such as a $1.4 million fraud judgment against him before he joined the service.
His family stuck with him through a difficult eight days in court. His wife sat behind him each day, even as three of Bales’ friends testified that he often complained about problems at home.
After the closing arguments, Bales’ sister-in-law read a statement for the family that called the testimony “painful, even heartbreaking.” She also asked that people help ensure Bales receives a fair trial by making contributions to his legal defense fund, online at www.helpsgtbales.com.
Over the past week, the Army called witnesses who said Bales was missing from his outpost on the night of the killings, and that when he returned, he wore a bloodied uniform with some kind of cape.
An Army surveillance video backs up their testimony, showing a caped figure wearing night vision goggles walking from one of the villages Bales’ allegedly attacked toward the Army outpost at Belambay that morning.
Witnesses said Bales made confessions to his fellow soldiers at Belambay once they apprehended him, such as: “Some sick (stuff) is going to come out of this and I hope you guys don’t think less of me.”
Scanlan sought to crack the Army’s evidence by stressing inconsistencies in certain witness testimony. She said she only yesterday received an Army report describing the chemicals in Bales’ system after his arrest. They include steroids, alcohol and sleeping pills.
“We don’t know what alcohol, steroids and sleeping aids do to a person who is lucid, coherent and responsive,” she said, picking at the Army’s description of Bales as rational on the night of the slaughter.
Scanlan said Bales received some of those mood-altering substances from Green Berets at Belambay. His infantry unit was attached to a team from the 7th Special Forces Group and isolated from its normal command structure of the Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade.
It was an unusual mission for Bales, who was on his fourth deployment with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
“They are the commanders,” she said, referring to the Special Operators. “They are in charge, and they are terrible at it.”
Other loose ends from the hearing include whether Bales ever sought care for post-traumatic stress or sustained treatment for a head injury. Scanlan would not say.
Last spring, Bales’ defense team refused to allow him to take an Army sanity board without one his lawyers present. Scanlan on Tuesday said they’re working on an agreement to administer that test in a fair manner.
She contrasted Bales’ most recent, glowing performance reviews with the depictions of him walking into Belambay at 4:49 a.m. March 11 in a T-shirt, combat pants and cape.
The reviews praised him for his “strong moral compass” and his ability to distinguish innocents from insurgents in complex battlefields.
“When we talk about him as rational, lucid, coherent, responsive, we need to ask ourselves why was someone so lucid wearing a cape?” Scanlan asked.
The Bales case: in summary
KEY ARMY POINTS:
• Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was a respected leader who received a tough assignment in Afghanistan because his commanders believed in him.
• Bales frequently complained about his home life in conversations with other soldiers, but he appeared excited about his deployment to Afghanistan and wanted to earn a promotion.
• Bales abused alcohol and steroids at his outpost and assaulted a civilian Afghan contractor supplying the base.
• While in custody after the killings, Bales made confessions, such as, “I thought I was doing the right thing and, “Come June, you guys are going to thank me,” a statement that apparently refers to the Afghan summer fighting season.
• There was blood from at least four people on clothing and gear seized from Bales the night of the killings. One DNA sample was matched to a blood stain at one of the homes he allegedly attacked.
• No eyewitness who testified said he or she saw more than one soldier firing at Afghans.
KEY DEFENSE POINTS:
• Bales received steroids, sleeping pills and alcohol from other soldiers at his combat outpost.
• Bales had suffered a head injury on a past deployment to Iraq and might have quietly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
• Lewis-McChord’s screenings for traumatic brain injuries and PTSD were flawed.
• Bales showed uncharacteristic behavior during his last deployment, growing short with junior soldiers and assaulting an Afghan contractor.
• Bales demonstrated bizarre behavior on the night of the killings, seeking counsel from a Special Forces noncommissioned officer.
• Several Afghan witnesses have told journalists that multiple American soldiers were involved in the killings.