LOS ANGELES – Prosecutors will seek the death penalty for an American soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in one of the most appalling atrocities of the war, the U.S. military said Wednesday.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales faces 16 charges of murder, six of attempted murder, seven for assault and two for using drugs. Seventeen of the 22 people killed or wounded were women or children, and almost all were shot in the head.
If sentenced to death, Bales, 39, could be the first U.S. soldier executed in over half a century: the last was in 1961. when Pvt. John Bennett was hanged for rape and attempted murder, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Bales is to face a full court-martial authorized to sentence him to a maximum penalty of death for the March massacre, the military announced.
“This decision was made after reviewing the Article 32 report of investigation,” said a statement issued by Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, referring to the report compiled from last month’s so-called Article 32 hearings. “If convicted of all charges (and specifications), the maximum punishment is death.”
“The government will seek the death penalty,” base spokesman Gary Dangerfield said. The trial will take place at the base, but no date has been set.
For capital punishment to be imposed, the statement said, the court-martial must unanimously agree on certain conditions: that Bales “is guilty of the eligible crime; at least one aggravating factor exists; and that the aggravating factor must substantially outweigh any extenuating or mitigating circumstances.”
Bales allegedly left his base in the Panjwayi district of southern Kandahar Province on the night of March 11 to commit the killings, which included nine children. He then allegedly set several of their bodies on fire.
Prosecutors at the Article 32 pretrial hearing alleged that Bales left the base twice to carry out the killings, returning in between and even telling a colleague what he had done. The weeklong hearing included three evening sessions — daytime in Afghanistan — to hear testimony by video conference from Afghan survivors and relatives of those who died.
At the time of the incident, Bales was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Pending his trial, he will remain in custody at the base.
At the end of the pretrial hearings, Bales’ family stressed that he was innocent until proven guilty, while his lawyer raised questions about the role of alcohol, drugs and stress in the tragedy. “We are not convinced the government has shown us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what happened that night,” said a family statement, calling Bales “courageous and honorable.”