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Army seeks death penalty against Sgt. Bales in Afghan massacre case

The Army says it will seek the death penalty against the soldier accused of massacring 16 Afghan villagers during pre-dawn raids in March. (AP Photo/file)

The lawyer for the JBLM soldier accused of the massacre of 16 Afghan villagers calls the Army’s decision to seek the death penalty “totally irresponsible.”

The U.S. Army said Wednesday it will seek the death penalty against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 39, who faces premeditated murder and other charges in the attack on two villages in southern Afghanistan.

The slayings drew such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before American investigators could reach the crime scenes.

“We think the Army is trying to escape responsibility for the decision to send Sgt. Bales to Afghanistan for his fourth deployment,” Bales attorney John Henry Browne said at a press conference at his Seattle office.

Prosecutors said Bales left his remote base in southern Afghanistan early on March 11, attacked one village, returned to the base, and then slipped away again to attack another nearby compound. Of the 16 people killed, nine were children.

No date has been set for his court martial, which will be held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle.

“He is disappointed but he understands the gravity of the situation and he’s working with all of us to try to avoid the first military execution in 50 years,” Brown said of Bales.

Bales’ wife, Kari Bales, said in a statement Wednesday that she and their children have been enjoying their weekend visits with Bales at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and she hopes he receives an impartial trial.

All Americans, including my beloved husband, are and must be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty after receiving a fair trial. I have said from the start that I want my Bob to have a fair trial. After all, this is America and that’s what due process is all about.

My husband is an American soldier. He is a citizen of the USA, and he is very much loved by me and by our children. I am so happy that my children and I can visit Bob every weekend and that for a few hours I can see and feel the love that flows between my children and their father. Whatever else is going on in the world, I am blessed by our weekend visits.

Bales’ defense team has said the government’s case is incomplete, and outside experts have said a key issue going forward will be to determine if Bales suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Bales grew up in the Cincinnati suburb of Norwood, Ohio, and served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“They should take responsibility for sending somebody to a high combat area who they knew had PTSD,” Browne said.

During last month’s preliminary hearing, prosecutors built a strong eyewitness case against the veteran soldier, with troops recounting how they saw Bales return to the base alone, covered in blood.

Afghan witnesses questioned via a video link from a forward operating base near Kandahar City described the horror of that night. A teenage boy recalled how the gunman kept firing as children scrambled, yelling: “We are children! We are children!” A young girl in a bright headscarf recalled hiding behind her father as he was shot to death.

An Army criminal investigations command special agent testified earlier that Bales tested positive for steroids three days after the killings, and other soldiers testified that Bales had been drinking the evening of the massacre.

Prosecutors, in asking for a court-martial trial, have pointed to statements Bales made after he was apprehended, saying his comments demonstrated a “clear memory of what he had done, and consciousness of wrongdoing.”

Several soldiers testified at a hearing that Bales returned to the base alone just before dawn, covered in blood, and that he made incriminating statements such as, “I thought I was doing the right thing.”

The U.S. military has not executed anyone since 1961. There are five men currently facing military death sentences, all for murders committed stateside. Nidal Hasan, charged in the 2009 rampage that killed 13 and wounded more than two dozen others at Fort Hood in Texas, also could face the death penalty if convicted; no date has been set for his court martial.

For Bales to face execution, the court martial jury must unanimously find him guilty of premeditated murder; that at least one aggravating factor applies, such as multiple or child victims; and that the aggravating factor substantially outweighs any extenuating or mitigating circumstances.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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