JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. (AP) — The U.S. soldier who killed 16 Afghan civilians during pre-dawn raids in two villages last year could soon learn his sentence.
Robert Bales pleaded guilty in June in a deal with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty. His sentencing begins Tuesday with the selection of a military jury to determine whether he receives life in prison with or without the possibility of release.
The massacre prompted such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before Army investigators could reach the crime scene.
His lawyers have indicated they plan to present evidence that during at least one of his prior deployments to Iraq, Bales had been prescribed the anti-malaria drug mefloquine. Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a new warning that the drug can cause long-term neurological damage and serious psychiatric side effects.
“Our general theme is that Sgt. Bales snapped,” said John Henry Browne, one of his civilian attorneys. “That’s kind of our mantra, and we say that because of all the things we know: the number of deployments, the head injuries, the PTSD, the drugs, the alcohol.”
Bales, on his fourth combat deployment, had been drinking and watching a movie with other soldiers at his remote post in Kandahar Province when he slipped away on March 11, 2012. Bales says he had also been taking steroids and snorting Valium provided by other soldiers.
Armed with a 9 mm pistol and an M-4 rifle, he attacked a village called Alkozai, then returned and woke up a fellow soldier to tell him about it. The soldier didn’t believe Bales and went back to sleep. Bales left again to attack a second village called Najiban.
Most of the 16 killed were women and children, and many bodies were burned. Six others were injured.
At one point during his plea hearing, the judge asked Bales why he killed the villagers.
Bales responded: “Sir, as far as why — I’ve asked that question a million times since then. There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did.”
If he is sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, Bales would be eligible in 20 years, but there’s no guarantee he’d receive it.
A hearing was scheduled Monday on motions related to the sentencing. One issue is how the judge will ensure that prosecutors make no use of compelled statements Bales gave to Army doctors. The statements are protected by Bales’ constitutional right against self-incrimination, and neither they nor any information derived from them can be used against him.
Prosecutors were inadvertently sent a copy of the statements by the judge in July, and they read them — even though military law experts say they should have immediately known they weren’t supposed to. Last week, the judge rejected a motion by Bales’ lawyers to have the entire prosecution team removed from the case.
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