Army seeks death penalty in Afghan massacre

Staff sergeant allegedly killed 16 in two villages

None of the Afghan witnesses identified Robert Bales, but other evidence implicated him.
None of the Afghan witnesses identified Robert Bales, but other evidence implicated him.

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — Army prosecutors asked an investigative officer to recommend a death penalty court-martial for a staff sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in a predawn rampage, saying Tuesday that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales committed ‘‘heinous and despicable crimes.’’

Prosecutors made their closing arguments after a week of testimony in the preliminary hearing. Prosecutors say Bales, 39, slipped away from his remote base at Camp Belambay in southern Afghanistan to attack two villages early on March 11. Among the dead were nine children.

The slayings drew such angry protests that the United States temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before US investigators could reach the crime scenes.


‘‘Terrible, terrible things happened,’’ said prosecutor, Major Rob Stelle. ‘‘That is clear.’’

Get Ground Game in your inbox:
Daily updates and analysis on national politics from James Pindell.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Stelle cited statements Bales made after he was apprehended, saying that they demonstrated ‘‘a clear memory of what he had done, and consciousness of wrongdoing.’’

Several soldiers testified that Bales returned to the base alone just before dawn, covered in blood, and that he made incriminating statements such as, ‘‘I thought I was doing the right thing.’’

An attorney for Bales argued there is not enough information to move forward with the court-martial.

‘‘There are a number of questions that have not been answered,’’ attorney Emma Scanlan told the investigating officer overseeing the preliminary hearing.


Scanlan said that it is still unknown what was Bales’s state of mind.

An Army criminal investigations command special agent had testified last week that Bales tested positive for steroids three days after the killings, and other soldiers testified that Bales had been drinking the evening of the massacre.

‘‘We’ve heard that Sergeant Bales was lucid, coherent, and responsive,’’ Scanlan said in her closing argument. ‘‘We don’t know what it means to be on alcohol, steroids, and sleeping aids.’’

The investigating officer said Tuesday that he would have a recommendation by the end of the week, but that is just the start of the process.The ultimate decision will be made by the three-star general on the base. There is no clear sense of how long it will be before a decision is reached on whether to proceed to a court-martial trial.

If a court-martial takes place, it will be held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle, and witnesses will be flown in from Afghanistan.


The military has not executed a service member since 1961, and none of the six men on death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., today were convicted for atrocities against foreign civilians.

DNA evidence

Bales faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder. The preliminary hearing, which began Nov. 5, included nighttime sessions on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for the convenience of the Afghan witnesses. Bales did not testify.

The witnesses included a 7-year-old girl, who described hiding behind her father when a gunman came to their village that night, how the stranger fired, and how her father died, cursing in pain and anger.

None of the Afghan witnesses were able to identify Bales as the shooter, but other evidence, including tests of the blood on his clothes, implicated him, according to testimony from a DNA specialist.

After the hearing, Scanlan spoke with reporters, saying that in addition to questions about Bales’s state of mind, there are questions of whether more people were involved.

During testimony, a special agent testified that months after the killings, she was able to interview the wife of a victim, who recounted having seen two US soldiers. Later, however, the woman’s brother-in-law, Mullah Baraan, who was not present at the shootings, testified that the woman says there was only one. She did not testify.

‘‘We need to know if more than one person was outside that wire,’’ Scanlan said.

Scanlan also raised the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and brain injury, noting that Bales had received a screening at the traumatic brain injury clinic at Madigan Army Medical Center.

‘‘We’re in the process of investigating that,’’ she said.

Dan Conway, a military defense lawyer based in New Hampshire, said Tuesday that PTSD must be considered as a factor in the case.

‘‘I think the defense team has an obligation to meet with doctors and determine if PTSD affected Bales’s ability to premeditate the murders,’’ Conway said. ‘‘It could play a very important role.’’