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Originally published November 13, 2012 at 8:44 PM | Page modified November 14, 2012 at 5:05 PM

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Army prosecutors seek death penalty in Bales war-crimes case

In seeking a death-penalty court-martial for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, charged with murdering 16 unarmed Afghan villagers, Army prosecutors portrayed the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier as a methodical, lucid killer. But defense attorneys, noting Bales' erratic behavior, say there are lots of unanswered questions about the defendant's state of mind.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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In seeking a death-penalty court-martial for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, Army prosecutors Tuesday portrayed the Lewis-McChord soldier as a methodical, deliberate killer who was lucid and conscious after he allegedly went on a murderous rampage in two Afghan villages.

"Terrible, terrible things happened. That is clear. The second thing that is clear, sir, is that Staff Sgt. Bales did it," said Army prosecutor Maj. Robert Stelle in a closing argument in a preliminary hearing to investigate charges against Bales. The Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier is accused of killing 16 unarmed Afghans, mostly women and children, and wounding six others on March 11.

Bales' defense team on Tuesday argued that the investigation into the soldier's state of mind has just begun and that he should not face the death penalty.

During the hearing at Lewis-McChord, the defense sketched a profile of a troubled infantry soldier who slipped through the cracks in predeployment health screenings, then was assigned to an out-of-control outpost in southern Afghanistan where his infantry buddies shared Jack Daniel's cocktails and Special Forces soldiers offered him steroids and sleeping-aid drugs.

"We have a dysfunctional and drinking and drugging ODA (Special Forces) team. We can't isolate Sgt. Bales in a bubble," said Emma Scanlon, his attorney.

In her closing arguments, Scanlon noted Bales' erratic behavior in the hours before the killings, as he woke up a Special Forces soldier to talk about family and other problems. Scanlon recounted how Bales was wearing a cape when he was apprehended by other soldiers as he returned to the outpost shortly before 5 a.m.

"Why in the world is someone so lucid wearing a cape?" Scanlon said.

William Deneke, the Army investigating officer, is expected to make a recommendation within the next week about the case. Another Army officer, known as the convening authority, then will decide how to proceed.

The Army and Bales' defense team have been negotiating about how to proceed with a "sanity board," a panel of doctors who would be charged with determining whether Bales is able to understand the wrongfulness of his conduct and to cooperate in his defense.

After the hearing, Scanlon said, "the question of Sgt. Bales' state of mind has not been addressed yet. The Army has a process whereby they look at the state of mind of a soldier accused of an offense of this nature and that hasn't even started."

During the hearing that began Nov. 5, prosecutors have repeatedly portrayed Bales as a lone gunman. The hearings featured testimony from several soldiers who said Bales was the only soldier detected missing from the base that night and the only one intercepted coming back to Camp Belambay from the direction of the village where the second wave of killings occurred.

On Tuesday, Stelle reviewed some of the statements attributed by other soldiers to Bales in the hours after he was taken into custody that appeared to acknowledge wrongdoing.

"Sorry I let you guys down. Some sick (expletive) is going to come out of this, and I hope you guys don't think the less of me," was one of those statements that Stelle repeated.

The hearing also cast an unusual spotlight on a Special Forces outpost that typically is shrouded in secrecy.

During the hearing, several Special Forces and infantry soldiers assigned to Belambay admitted to illegally drinking alcohol. One soldier said he also ground up Valium for snorting.

Scanlon on Tuesday said she submitted a report into the court record that detailed an investigation of another Belambay Special Forces soldier for money laundering in connection with a Mexican drug cartel.

The defense team also sought to highlight inconsistencies in statements from survivors in the two villages. Scanlon noted that one widow gave Army investigators in June a detailed account of two soldiers involved in the killing of her husband. Other survivors said they saw lights, presumably from other soldiers, outside the compounds where the killings occurred.

Scanlon also pointed out conflicts in some of the testimony.

During the hearing, an Afghan soldier testified he heard shots over a prolonged period after 1 a.m. while on night watch duty. The time frame extended beyond the time when another soldier testified Bales had briefly returned to the base, Scanlon said.

"We need to know if there was more than one person outside that wire," Scanlon said after the hearing. "We need to know why there are shots fired after they say Sgt. Bales returned to the base. Those are the things that we are going to explore going forward."

In her closing arguments, Scanlon sought to raise questions about the care Bales received at Madigan Army Medical Center for a concussive head injury. She indicated that a clinic there didn't track him and make sure that he came to his next appointment.

After the hearing ended, the Bales family released a statement.

"Much of the testimony was painful, even heartbreaking, but we are not convinced that the government has shown us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what happened that night," the statement said.

"As a family we all grieve deeply for the Afghani (Afghan) families who lost their loved ones on March 11, but we must not rush to judgment."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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