A JBLM soldier will spend the rest of his life in prison for the for the massacre of 16 Afghan villagers.
A military jury handed down the sentence for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales Friday after deliberating for less than two hours.
Bales, 40, pleaded guilty in June in a deal to avoid the death penalty, and the only possible sentences for the jury to consider were life in prison with the possibility of release after 20 years, or life without release.
Bales’ mother, sitting in the front row of the court, bowed her head, rocked in her seat, and wept. An interpreter flashed a thumbs-up sign to a row of Afghan villagers who were either injured or lost family members in the March 11, 2012 attacks.
Bales never offered an explanation for why he armed himself with a 9 mm pistol and an M-4 rifle and left his post on the killing mission, but he apologized on the witness stand Thursday and described the slaughter as an “act of cowardice, behind a mask of fear, bulls— and bravado.”
In addition to the sentence, Bales was also demoted to the lowest military rank, forfeits all pay and benefits and receives a dishonorable discharge.
Describing Bales as a “man of no moral compass,” Lt. Col. Jay Morse asked the jury in his closing argument to ensure he is never released from prison.
“In just a few short hours, Sgt. Bales wiped out generations,” Morse said. “Sgt. Bales dares to ask you for mercy when he has shown none.”
In her closing, defense attorney Emma Scanlan begged the jurors to consider her client’s prior life and years of good military service, and suggested he snapped under the weight of his fourth combat deployment. She read from a letter Bales sent to his children 10 weeks before the killing: “The children here are a lot like you. They like to eat candy and play soccer. They all know me because I juggle rocks for them.”
“These aren’t the words of a cold-blooded murderer,” Scanlan said.
She also read from a letter sent by a fellow soldier, a captain who said that Bales seemed to have trouble handling a decade of war and death: “The darkness that had been tugging at him for the last 10 years swallowed him whole.”
But prosecutors laid out the case for a life term, arguing that Bales’ own “stomach-churning” words demonstrated that he knew exactly what he was doing when he left his remote post at Camp Belambay and walked to the two nearby villages, shooting 22 people in all _ 17 of them women and children, some of them as they screamed for help, others as they slept.
“My count is 20,” Bales told another soldier when he returned to the base.
Morse displayed a photograph of a girl’s bloodied corpse and described how Bales executed her where should have felt safest _ beside her father, who was also murdered.
Morse also played a surveillance video of Bales returning to the base after the killings, marching with “the methodical, confident gait of a man who’s accomplished his mission.”
Bales was under personal, financial and professional stress at the time. He had stopped paying the mortgage on one of his houses, was concerned about his wife’s spending and hadn’t received a promotion he wanted.
“Sgt. Bales commits these barbaric acts because he takes stock of his life,” Morse said. “Sgt. Bales thinks the rest of the world is not giving him what he deserves.”
The closing arguments came a day after Bales apologized for the attack, saying he’d bring back the victims “in a heartbeat” if he could.
“I’m truly, truly sorry to those people whose families got taken away,” he said in a mostly steady voice during questions from one of his lawyers. “I can’t comprehend their loss. I think about it every time I look at my kids.”
He did not recount specifics of the horrors in court Thursday or offer an explanation for the violence, but he described the killings as an “act of cowardice, behind a mask of fear, bulls— and bravado.”
He said he hoped his words would be translated for the nine villagers who traveled from Afghanistan to testify against him _ none of whom elected to be in court to hear from him.
The Associated Press contributed to this report