The US Army has announced it will seek the death penalty for a soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in a March massacre.
The Army's decision was announced after a pretrial hearing for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who faces a court-martial for 16 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder, seven counts of assault and other charges in connection with the March 11 murder of 16 innocent Afghan civilians in Kandahar Province.
Prosecutors allege that Staff Sgt. Bales shot and stabbed members of several families, nine of them children, in two villages in a deliberate pre-dawn slaughter spree possibly motivated by revenge for a fellow soldier who lost his leg in a bomb attack. Bales allegedly left his remote forward operating base, attacked the village of Alkozai, returned to his base, then snuck off to kill more people in the nearby village of Balandi. Bales is accused of burning the bodies of some of his victims.
According to testimony from survivors of the massacre, Bales' victims yelled "we are children!" as he mowed them down. A teenage boy testified about how he saw a little girl hiding behind her father, who was allegedly shot dead by Bales.
Other soldiers testified that Bales, who they claim had been drinking on the night of the massacre, returned to his base covered in blood. He allegedly made incriminating statements, including saying that "I thought I was doing the right thing." Prosecutors allege that these, and other statements, demonstrate that Bales had a "clear memory of what he had done, and consciousness of wrongdoing."
Bales' defense lawyers countered that their client's mental state was compromised by stress, alcohol, sleeping pills and steroids. His lead attorney, John Henry Browne, called the Army's course of action against Bales "understandable but fully irresponsible."
The choice of Browne as Bales' defense counsel has raised eyebrows and ire. Browne has represented some notorious defendants in the past, such as Colton Harris-Moore, aka the "Barefoot Bandit" and serial killer Ted Bundy.
"The Army is trying to take the focus off the failures of the Army, which are substantial," Browne told the New York Times in a telephone interview. Browne stressed that his client, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, was suffering from both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a result of a vehicle rollover in Iraq but that the Army sent him to fight in "one of the more intense battlegrounds of Afghanistan, on his fourth deployment."
In order for the death sentence to be imposed on Bales, the court-martial must unanimously find him guilty, plus find at least one aggravating factor that "substantially" outweighs any extenuating or mitigating circumstances. The president must also approve the sentence. The last time the military executed one it its own was in 1961.
Acquittals or light sentences are far more common in the US military justice system. Recently, Marine Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who led a squad that slaughtered 24 innocent Iraqi civilians at Haditha in 2005, struck a plea bargain that allowed him to avoid serving prison time for the atrocity. Of the seven other Marines charged in connection with the Haditha massacre, charges were dropped against six and the seventh was acquitted.
On the other hand, members of a US Army "kill team" who murdered innocent Afghans for sport and kept victims' body parts as souvenirs were handed sentences as severe as life imprisonment for their crimes.