Prosecutor urges court-martial trial, capital murder case against Bales

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD —A weeklong hearing in the case against Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales ended in a military courtroom Tuesday with defense attorneys declaring that “only one side of the story” has been heard.
Bales faces charges on 16 counts of premeditated murder in the killings of  civilians in southern Afghanistan, which could make him eligible for the death penalty, and six counts of attempted murder.

“Just to be clear, nobody’s denying that what happened to people in the villages of Alkozai and Najiban is not a catastrophic … tragedy. This is beyond dispute,” civilian defense lawyer Emma Scanlan said at the close of the Article 32 hearing to determine whether Bales is to be held for a court-martial. “The question we’re asking now is whether you have enough to feel confident that this should go forward.”

In their first comprehensive assessment of the evidence, defense lawyers made it clear they will not only raise questions about whether Bales acted alone in the post-midnight shooting spree, but whether he acted coldly and rationally, as Army prosecutors allege.

Yet to be explored, they said, are the extent to which Bales was affected by an earlier traumatic brain injury, and how impaired he might have been by using alcohol, a sleeping aid and steroids.

Some of Bales’ family members appeared briefly outside the courtroom at the conclusion of the proceedings, during which testimony about Bales' unhappiness with his home life also emerged.

“Much of the testimony was painful, even heartbreaking, but we are not convinced the government has shown us the truth … about what happened that night,” Stephanie Tandberg, the sister of Bales' wife, told reporters, reading from a statement.

“As a family, we all grieve deeply for the Afghani families who lost their loved ones on March 11, but we must not rush to judgment,” she said. “We know Bob as bright, courageous and honorable.... We in Bob’s family are proud to stand by him.”

Prosecutors summarized the testimony of more than three dozen witnesses who traced Bales’ pathway that night from drinking with colleagues at the base to a journey to two different villages near the base, where 16 people were killed in their homes and six others were injured.

“Sgt. Bales gave a report to Sgt. McLaughlin halfway through that night,” one of the prosecuting attorneys, Maj. Rob Stelle, told the court. “He told Sgt. McLaughlin, ‘Hey, I just went to Alkozai and shot up some people … now I’m going to go to Najiban and do some more.”

The multiple statements Bales made to his colleagues in the hours after his arrest, Stelle said, demonstrate a clear memory of what happened, and a consciousness of guilt.

He urged investigating officer Col. Lee Deneke to recommend a full court-martial and to also recommend it be tried as a capital case, with the possibility of the death penalty. Nine of the victims “were children murder in their own homes,” Stelle said.

“The heinous, brutal, methodical, despicable nature of these crimes supports the recommendation, sir.”

--Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times