2:20 p.m. update: Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will not face the death penalty when an Army jury decides his punishment for massacring 16 Afghan civilians, an Army judge said today.
Bales’ maximum penalty will be life without a chance for parole, Judge Col. Jeffery Nance said in court today when he accepted Bales’ guilty plea.
The agreement lays the groundwork for an Aug. 19 sentencing trial where Bales’ attorneys hope put the March 2012 massacre in the context of the soldier’s experiences over four combat tours. Factors including Bales’ reported post-traumatic stress and a past concussive head injury could help him win a chance at parole.
Bales’ previous combat experience did not come up in court today.
He did, however, describe an environment on his last deployment that tolerated alcohol and steroid abuse in a combat zone. His Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker battalion was attached to a 7th Special Forces Group team that was in charge of the outpost where Bales last served.
He testified that he obtained steroids from a Special Forces noncommissioned officer and used them three times a week to get “fit for the mission.” He also said he drank with soldiers at the base.
The military forbids service members from using either substance while they’re deployed. Bales said the steroids increased his “irritability and anger.”
Today’s hearing is mostly complete. The attorneys have a few more motions to make. We’ll file final story after we hear from Bales’ defense attorneys at a press conference later today.
11:35 a.m. update: Staff Sgt. Robert Bales today named each of the 16 Afghan civilians he slaughtered last year and admitted that he wanted to kill them when he raised his rifle and shot them, but the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier could not explain what motivated him that night.
“I’ve asked that question a million times since then,” he said in court at Lewis-McChord. “There’s not a good reason in the world for why I did the horrible things I did.”
Bales, 39, is working his way through the stipulations of fact in a more than 30-page plea agreement his attorneys reached with Army prosecutors. He must admit to each offense and explain to a judge why he knows he’s guilty. He’s trying to secure a plea agreement that would spare him the death penalty.
His voice wavered a few times as he named his victims, but he mostly relied on the legal language of his plea agreement in describing the homicides.
For instance, in describing his killing of a man named Mohammed Dawood, Bales said “I formed the intent to kill Mohammed Dawood and then did kill him by shooting him with with a firearm. This act had no legal justification.”
He read a variation of the same paragraph for each of his victims.
Bales was charged with 34 criminal offenses from his deployment in Kandahar Province’s Panjwai District last year with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. It took 50 minutes for judge Col. Jeffery Nance to describe each charge and accept Bales’ guilty pleas.
Bales did not remember all of the crimes. He could not tell Nance why he burned the corpses of his victims in Najiban, the second village he attacked that night. He does not remember lighting the bodies on fire.
“I remember that there was a lantern in the room. I remember there being a fire after that situation. I remember going back to the (outpost) with matches in my pocket. To tell you I remember picking it up and throwing it on a group of people, I do not recall that,” Bales said.
Bales left his outpost, Village Stability Platform Belambay, in the early hours of March 11, 2012. He walked to the village of Alkozai, where he said he entered a family’s compound and was confronted by a woman named Na’ikmargha. He said he killed her after the struggle and then decided to shoot any other civilians he saw.
He killed four people in Alkozai and wounded six more. Bales then returned to his combat outpost only to leave once more for another assault in Najiban, where he killed 12 more civilians.
9:15 a.m. update: Staff Sgt. Robert Bales this morning pleaded guilty to murdering 16 Afghan villagers and wounding six more during a nighttime rampage outside of his combat outpost in Kandahar Province last year.
He pleaded guilty to all of the charges the Army filed against him, save for one. He pleaded not guilty to a charge of attempting to impede an Army investigation by requesting to destroy a laptop.
His hearing is on a short recess while he reviews his plea agreement. The hearing could last two days.
Bales requested that that the Army provide a jury panel for a sentencing trial that is expected to begin on Aug. 19. Today, he is making his plea in front of a single Army judge.
Bales has several friends and family members in court behind him, including his wife, Kari. He’s wearing a dress blue uniform with a pin on the chest representing the 2nd Infantry Division. He served for a decade in Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales today is expected to confess to murdering 16 Afghan civilians during his deployment to Kandahar Province last year with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade in the hopes of securing a plea agreement that would spare him the death penalty.
Bales, 39, must give his best recollection of his two forays outside of a combat outpost in Kandahar’s rural Panjwai District to persuade an Army judge that he understands the charges against him and the ramifications of his guilty plea.
Later, Lewis-McChord senior officer Lt. Gen. Robert Brown will have the final say on whether the Army accepts Bales’ plea. Brown in December announced that Bales would face the death penalty at his court-martial.
Murder carries a mandatory minimum life sentence under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Bales will fight for a shot at parole in front of a jury later this year at a sentencing trial, his attorney, John Henry Browne, said.
The Army has not executed anyone since 1961. The five service members on death row at FortLeavenworth are there for killing other Americans, not foreign civilians in a combat zone.
Still, a plea agreement taking the death penalty off the table represents a victory for Bales’ defense, said Dan Conway, a veteran military attorney who two years ago defended a junior Lewis-McChord soldier accused of killing a civilian in Kandahar.
“Any time you’ve negotiated a deal to save your client’s life, you’ve already had a successful outcome, and particularly in a case like this involving the number of civilians.”
Bales, a father of two who used to live in Lake Tapps, was a well respected soldier on his fourth combat tour with Lewis-McChord’s original Stryker Brigade, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
He allegedly slipped out of Village Stability Platform Belambay twice in the early hours of March 11, 2012 to kill civilians in their homes. Most of his victims were women or children.
Afghan survivors of the attacks testified at a November hearing from a video link to Lewis-McChord, describing a horrific night in which they saw an American soldier slaughter their family members.
One of Bales’ fellow Stryker soldiers testified that Bales visited him after the first of two trips to kill civilians outside the base and said, “I just shot up some people.” His friend did not believe him until Bales was reported missing from their outpost that morning, according to testimony at a November pretrial hearing.
Bales’ friends and supervisors have testified that they did not notice any unusual signs of distress in him before or during their deployment. They said in court that Bales occasionally complained about trouble at home with his family, and that he badly wanted a promotion to sergeant first class.
Court records show he also had financial troubles. He had a $1.4 million fraud judgment against him from before he joined the service, and, more recently, he was underwater on real estate he owned in Washington State.
Bales’ attorneys have said that he suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and possible head trauma from an explosion on a previous deployment. Bales also had access to steroids and alcohol at the Special Forces outpost where he was assigned in Kandahar, according to court testimony.
Those factors – his health and the poor discipline at his outpost – could help him at his sentencing trial, Conway said.
But the severity of the crimes and the evidence the Army has already revealed tying him to the murders will make it an “uphill battle” for Bales’ attorneys to win him a chance for parole during the sentencing phase, Conway said.