TACOMA, Wash. — A decorated U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers carried out his rampage in a methodical manner and should face a court-martial and, ultimately, the death penalty, a military prosecutor said Tuesday.
Army Prosecutor Major Rob Stelle said that Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 39, ventured out of his remote camp in Afghanistan on two revenge-fueled forays over a five-hour period in March.
The prosecutor, speaking at a pretrial hearing in Washington state, cited the “heinous, brutal, methodical despicable nature of these crimes” in urging a military officer hearing the case to recommend a court-martial.
“Most despicable was the murdering of children in their own homes,” Stelle said during his 10 minutes of closing arguments, adding that nine of the dead were children and five were younger than 5 years old.
The shootings in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on an individual U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and damaged already strained U.S.-Afghan relations.
The government believes Bales was solely responsible for the deaths, and survivors have testified to seeing only a single U.S. soldier. But several indirect accounts have suggested that more than one soldier was involved.
A veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bales faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder, as well as charges of assault and wrongfully possessing and using steroids and alcohol while deployed.
He faces the possibility of the death penalty if a military commander decides to hold the court-martial as a capital case.
A military jury must later come to a unanimous decision in deciding both guilt and whether to impose the death penalty. The military justice system also requires the president to approve the execution of a service member; the last execution in a U.S. military case occurred in 1961.
Prosecutors presented physical evidence to tie Bales to the crime scene, with a forensic investigator saying a sample of blood on his clothing matched a swab taken in one of the compounds where the shooting occurred..
Prosecutors said Bales drank with two fellow soldiers, then left his base and went to a village where he committed the first killings. He then returned to the camp and had a brief exchange with another soldier before leaving for a second village and killing more people, prosecutors said.
Bales’ lawyers have not set out an alternative theory to the prosecution case, but have pointed out inconsistencies in testimony and highlighted incidents before the shooting in which Bales lost his temper easily, possibly setting up an argument that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bales’ defense attorney, Emma Scanlan, said that his judgment was clouded by alcohol, steroids and sleep aids. She took note of testimony that Bales wore a makeshift cape when he returned to his base, Camp Belambay, the night of the killings.
“Sergeant Bales was wearing a cape,” she said. “Why in the world would someone so lucid be wearing a cape?”
Scanlan also suggested that more than one culprit was involved in the killings. “We have unanswered questions about timelines and mental states,” she said during her 30 minutes of closing arguments.