The American soldier charged with killing 16 Afghan civilians during nighttime raids on two villages last year pleaded guilty Wednesday in a military courtroom to avoid the death penalty, setting the stage for him to recount details of the horrific slaughter.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales pleaded guilty to 16 counts of premeditated murder and other charges in the March 2012 attacks on two villages near the remote base in southern Afghanistan where he was posted.
Most of the victims were women and children, and some of the bodies were burned; 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.
A military judge still must decide whether to accept his plea.
As the hearing began at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, the judge, Col. Jeffery Nance, explained Bales’ rights and asked if he understood them. Bales stood and answered: “Yes, sir, I do.”
Defense attorney Emma Scanlan then entered Bales’ pleas on his behalf. She entered one not guilty plea, to a charge that he impeded the investigation by breaking his laptop after he was taken into custody.
Bales, 39, has signed a lengthy stipulation of facts about his actions the night of the attacks.
Nance said Wednesday he will question the soldier about the details admitted in that document. Bales’ attorney John Henry Browne has said he expects his client to admit to “very specific facts” about the killings.
Browne said last week that Bales, a father of two from Lake Tapps, was “crazed” and “broken” but not legally insane at the time of the attacks.
Although Wednesday’s proceedings will provide Bales’ account for the first time, survivors who testified by video link from Afghanistan during a hearing last fall vividly recalled the carnage.
A young girl in a bright headscarf described hiding behind her father as he was shot to death. Boys told of hiding behind curtains as others scrambled and begged the soldier to spare them, yelling: “We are children! We are children!” A thick-bearded man told of being shot in the neck by a gunman “as close as this bottle,” gesturing to a water bottle on a table in front of him.
Prosecutors say that before dawn on March 11, 2012, Bales slipped away from Camp Belambay in Kandahar Province, armed with a 9 mm pistol and M-4 rifle outfitted with a grenade launcher.
He first attacked one village of mud-walled compounds, Alkozai, then returned to the base, woke up a fellow soldier and told him about it. The soldier didn’t believe him and went back to sleep. Bales then left to attack a second village, Najiban.
The massacre prompted such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before Army investigators could reach the crime scene.
Bales was serving his fourth combat deployment 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.
“Any time you can strike a deal that saves your client’s life, I would call that a win,” said Dan Conway, a civilian military defense lawyer who is not involved in the case. “This is the right result for both parties.”