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Judge finds JBLM soldier guilty in Afghan massacre

In this courtroom sketch, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, right, stands in a military courtroom as Bales' wife Kari Bales looks on at left, Wednesday, June 5, 2013, during a plea hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. Robert Bales pleaded guilty to multiple counts of murder, stemming from a pre-dawn attack on two villages in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan in March, 2012. (AP Photo/Peter Millett)

The JBLM soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians, many of them women and children who were asleep in their villages, pleaded guilty to murder Wednesday and acknowledged to a judge that there was “not a good reason in this world” for his actions.

When Military Judge Jeffrey Nance asked Staff Sgt. Robert Bales why he killed the villagers during nighttime raids last year, he responded, “I’ve asked that question a million times and there’s not a good reason in this world for what I did.”

The court also ruled Bales does not suffer from mental disease or defect and understands what he is doing, despite the fact that he’s taking some medication for emotional distress.

The judge explained the maximum sentence under a plea agreement to avoid the death penalty: Forfeiture of pay, reduction in rank, dishonorable discharge, and life without parole. He then asked Bales if he understands that he’s pleading guilty to 16 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of premeditated attempted murder, assault, drug, and other charges.

Nance went through each “stipulation of fact,” charge by charge and each time asked Bales if he had any questions. “No, sir,” was his answer each time.

Bales spoke in the courtroom about the slayings for the first time. KIRO Radio’s Tim Haeck said he made his admissions without apparent emotion, “simply a recitation of the facts.”

Prosecutors say Bales slipped away before dawn on March 11, 2012, from his base in Kandahar Province. Armed with a 9 mm pistol and an M-4 rifle equipped with a grenade launcher, he attacked a village of mud-walled compounds 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 then left to attack a second village known as Najiban.

In response to questions from Judge Nance, Bales said he knew he did not have legal justification for the killings at the time, he didn’t believe it was a military order and he wasn’t coerced.

The judge asked Bales if he could have avoided killing the victims, and Bales replied, “yes, sir.” And when Judge Nance asked him to describe the intent he had when killing the 16 Afghan civilians, he said, “Each victim, prior to shooting them, I formed the intent (to end their lives) as I raised my weapon.”

Bales has told the judge that he only knows what happened because he’s read the accusations in the report. When the judge asked about Bales burning his victims, he said “Sir, there was a kerosene lantern in the room and based on the evidence from the CID reports and others plus witness testimony, that lantern was used to set those people on fire.”

The judge asked Bales he had an independent recollection of the burning event. Said Bales, “Sir, I remember there being a lantern in the room and I remember there being a fire after the situation and having matches in my pocket […] but throwing that lantern on people, I don’t recall that […] I’ve seen the pictures and it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Bales told the judge that he understands burning of bodies goes against cultural norms in Afghanistan and that his actions “may bring disgrace upon the military.”

Bales, 39 was charged in the March 2012 attacks on two villages near the remote base in southern Afghanistan where he was posted.

Bales has admitted he killed each victim and “burned” ten of the victims.

Most of the victims were women and children. Relatives have told The Associated Press they are irate at the notion Bales will escape execution for one of the worst atrocities of the Afghanistan war.

Bales was serving his fourth combat deployment when the rampage occurred, and had an otherwise good if undistinguished military record in a decade-long career. The Ohio native suffered from PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, his lawyers say, and he had been drinking contraband alcohol and snorting Valium, both provided by other soldiers, the night of the killings.

The case raised questions about the toll multiple deployments were taking on American troops. For that reason, many legal experts believed it was unlikely he would receive the death penalty, as Army prosecutors were seeking. The military justice system hasn’t executed anyone since 1961, but five men currently face death sentences.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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