Army charges Bales in Afghan killings, plans proceedings at Lewis-McChord
The military's maximum punishment for a premeditated murder conviction is death, and the mandatory minimum is life imprisonment with a chance of parole.
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Charges filed Friday against Joint Base Lewis-McChord Staff Sgt. Robert Bales reflect the horror of the crime: 17 counts of premeditated murder, more than half of them children, during a shooting rampage in southern Afghanistan. But while Afghans are calling for swift and severe punishment, it will likely be months, even years, before the public ever sees Bales in a courtroom.
One only has to look at two similarly high-profile cases to see that the wheels of military justice turn slowly.
It has been nearly 29 months since an Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Hasan, allegedly killed 13 and injured two dozen more at Fort Hood, Texas. His trial is scheduled to begin in June. It has been 21 months since the military charged intelligence analyst Bradley Manning with leaking hundreds of thousands of pages of classified information. It took nine months before he was deemed competent to stand trial.
The Bales case is likely to be equally complex, involving questions of his mental state and the role that the stresses of war and possible previous head injuries may have played in his alleged actions.
Most of the witnesses are the Afghan villagers and survivors, who may be brought in for the trial.
The military on Friday charged Bales, 38, with 17 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder and six counts of assault in the March 11 massacre in two Afghanistan villages near his base.
The father of two from Lake Tapps was officially informed of the 29 charges just before noon at the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he is confined.
Though the Friday proceedings were held in Kansas, the Army said Friday that future legal proceedings would take place at Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma.
The maximum punishment for a premeditated-murder conviction is death, according to Col. Gary Kolb, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The mandatory minimum sentence is life imprisonment with a chance of parole.
The charges offered few details of what happened on the night of the killings. But the soldier is accused of walking off his base with his 9-mm pistol and M-4 rifle, which was outfitted with a grenade launcher; killing four men, four women, two boys and seven girls; and burning some of the bodies. The ages of the children were not disclosed.
In the most detailed descriptions of the shootings to date, the charges say Bales shot a girl in the head, a boy in the thigh, a man in the neck and a woman in the chest and groin. The documents also say that he "shot at" another girl and boy, but apparently did not hit them.
The attack occurred in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban. The bodies were found in the villages of Balandi and Alkozai, one north and one south of Bales' base.
The case against Bales is the worst allegation of civilian killings by an American in Afghanistan and has severely strained U.S.-Afghan ties at a critical time in the decade-old war.
Not addressed in the charges are suggestions that Bales may have been drinking. On Friday, a senior U.S. defense official said Bales was drinking in the hours before the attack on the Afghan villagers, violating a U.S. military order banning alcohol in war zones. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials have said additional charges could be filed.
Bales' civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, said Friday the government will have a hard time proving its case and that his client's mental state will be an important issue. Two military defense attorneys also have been assigned to the case.
Bales was on his fourth tour of duty, having served three tours in Iraq, where he suffered head and foot injuries.
The charges set in motion what will likely be a lengthy military-justice process.
"Usually in military and civilian criminal cases, delay accrues to the benefit of the accused. So there will be some maneuvering to put it off a while," said Gary Solis, retired Marine prosecutor and adjunct law professor at Georgetown University.
Bales may face what the military calls a "sanity board" to determine his mental state at the time and whether he is competent to stand trial.
According to military lawyers and experts, now that the charges have been filed, the next step for the military is to decide whether there is enough evidence to refer the charges to a preliminary hearing. That hearing, what the military calls an Article 32, would determine whether there's probable cause to believe a crime was committed and that the person charged did it.
After the Article 32, the hearing officer recommends to a general officer whether the case should go to trial. That high-ranking officer decides whether the case should go to a court-martial in front of a military judge.
Browne said he thinks the U.S. government will have difficulty convicting Bales because "there is no crime scene" and the case lacks important physical evidence such as fingerprints.
One attorney, James Culp, said Army prosecutors should be able to collect the victims' DNA blood samples on Bales' uniform, and possibly his DNA on them. Because some victims were dragged, there may have been evidence from the suspect's fingernails, Culp said.
Bullet holes and spent shells, as well as blood splatter in the victims' homes, also could be used as evidence against Bales, he said.
"It won't be like 'CSI' and a perfect world," Culp said, referring to the television show. "But I don't think they will have that hard of a time putting their case together."
Prosecutors also will use statements by witnesses and Afghan civilians who were injured that night, as well as any observations by other soldiers about Bales' conduct and his movement on or off the base.
The decision to formally charge Bales did nothing to dampen the anger of Mohammed Wazir, who lost 11 family members — including his mother, wife, four daughters and two sons — in the rampage.
Wazir, 35, said he did not believe that a military trial in the United States could ever bring justice.
"This is not acceptable for us," Wazir said in an interview Friday from the Afghan town of Spin Boldak. "We want him to be tried in Afghanistan, in our presence."
A farmer and trader, Wazir lived in a mud home in one of the villages Bales allegedly targeted. Also shot and killed in Wazir's home were his brother, his brother's wife and their child, according to Wazir and other villagers.
At the time of the attack, Wazir was in Spin Boldak, about 85 miles south, with his 4-year-old son, Habib Shah. Habib is now his only surviving child.
Material from The New York Times
and Tribune Washington bureau
are included in this report.