Bales' defense team has been fighting to prevent him from undergoing this process because a defense lawyer will not be present during the questioning and it will not be videotaped. (AP Photo/File)

Sanity hearing underway for man accused of Afghan mass murder

It's been more than two years since a Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier was accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians during a rampage in two small village. For the first time since, that soldier's mental health is being evaluated by the military.

Military doctors and forensic psychologists sat down with Staff Sergeant Robert Bales over the weekend to begin what's called a "sanity board." It's job is to determine Bales' state of mind at the time of the attacks and to decide if he's competent now to stand trial in his military court martial. The hearing began Sunday and is expected to last a few days.

Bales' defense team has been fighting to prevent him from undergoing this process because a defense lawyer will not be present during the questioning and it will not be videotaped.

Stephen Carpenter is a former military attorney who said these boards can be very intense. "They will get specific with him," said Carpenter. "They will ask specifically what it is that he recalls about the incidents. They're going to get into the nitty-gritty with him about it."

Two years has passed since the mass murder in Afghanistan. How can these experts determine someone's state of mind at a point in time so long ago? "Bales' memory of the events would, obviously, diminish," said Carpenter. "I think that could certainly undercut some of the information that's being provided to the 'sanity board.'"

Carpenter also believes the passage of time could help Bales' defense strategy. "It gives the defense somewhat of an excuse to explain away maybe some inconsistencies or some things that don't make sense on Bales' part," he said.

This sanity board will likely last a few days and consist of questioning from the experts and a long multiple-choice test used to determine whether Bales is answering truthfully. "I think it's a fair system," said Carpenter. "I think the doctors are good doctors."

But Carpenter shares the concerns raised by Bales' defense team that the hearing should be videotaped and a defense attorney should be allowed in.

Bales' statements at this hearing will not be able to be used against him during his court martial and the findings will only become available if his defense team chooses to raise a mental health defense.

The defense team says Bales' suffered from PTSD and a traumatic brain injury during his multiple tours overseas. He was on his fourth deployment when the military says he slipped out of his base and killed 16 Afghan civilians. It also claims he had been drinking and taking steroids.

The Army is seeking the death penalty in the case. The trial is currently set to begin in September.

Chris Sullivan, KIRO Radio Reporter
Chris loves the rush of covering breaking news and works hard to try to make sense of it all while telling stories about real people in extraordinary circumstances.
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