U.S Army sergeant admits murdering 16 Afghan civilians
A U.S. Army sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood last year pleaded guilty to premeditated murder and other charges under a deal with military prosecutors to avoid the death penalty.
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is accused of roaming off his Army post in the Afghan province of Kandahar last March and gunning down unarmed villagers, mostly women and children, in attacks on their family compounds.
Prosecutors said he set fire to many of his victims.
The shootings marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on a rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and further strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in that country.
Bales, wearing a military dress uniform, stood beside his lawyer, Emma Scanlan, as she entered guilty pleas on his behalf to 16 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder and seven counts of assault, as well as to alcohol and drug charges.
She entered a plea of not guilty to obstruction charges accusing Bales of damaging a laptop computer and burning the bodies of some of his Afghan victims in an attempt to impede the investigation.
Bales wife was seated behind him in the courtroom benches at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Washington.
Scanlan told Reuters last week that Bales had agreed to plead guilty to the murder charges against him in return for military prosecutors agreeing not to seek the death penalty.
The plea agreement is subject to final approval by the presiding judge, Army Colonel Jeffery Nance, who must first determine whether Bales has provided a complete account of the events, understands his plea and accepts the consequences of his acts.
A court-martial jury will decide in a sentencing phase set for August whether a life term for Bales' crimes will include the possibility of parole, according to Scanlan. Bales requested in court that one third of the jury panel consist of enlisted military personnel, as opposed to officers.
Army prosecutors have said Bales acted alone and with chilling premeditation when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his post twice during the night to attack civilians. He is alleged to have returned to base in the middle of the rampage to tell a fellow soldier: "I just shot up some people."
Defense attorneys have argued that Bales, the father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury even before his deployment to Afghanistan.
During a nine-day pre-trial hearing in November, witnesses testified that Bales had been angered by a bomb blast near his outpost that severed a fellow soldier's leg days before the shootings.
The plea deal outlined by Bales' lawyers was similar to an agreement struck at Lewis-McChord in April, when Army Sergeant John Russell pleaded guilty to killing two fellow U.S. servicemen at a military counseling center in Iraq, near Baghdad's airport, in a 2009 shooting spree.
Russell was sentenced to life in prison without parole following an abbreviated court-martial stemming from one of the worst cases of violence by an American soldier against other U.S. troops.