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Sgt. Bales' State Of Mind Key To Defense In War Crimes Case

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - In eight days of hearings, Army prosecutors outlined in grisly detail the case against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the Washington soldier charged with killing and wounding 23 Afghan civilians in a rampage this past March. Bales’ pretrial hearing concluded Tuesday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

SSG. Robert Bales wife Karilyn, middle, listens as her sister reads a family statement to reporters at the conclusion of the pretrial hearing. Photo by Austin Jenkins
SSG. Robert Bales wife Karilyn, middle, listens as her sister reads a family statement to reporters at the conclusion of the pretrial hearing. Photo by Austin Jenkins

Now the Army will decide whether the evidence supports a full court martial and, if so, whether the death penalty is appropriate in this case.

Prosecutors say of the 16 killed, nine were children. Five of them under age five. By video feed from Afghanistan some of the surviving victims testified about the horrors of that early morning in march when a gunman entered their walled compound and opened fire.

Prosecutors say that man was Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a married father of two on his fourth combat deployment.

Outside court, Bales’ family painted a very different picture of the man they call Bob.

“We know Bob as a bright, courageous and honorable soldier, son, husband ...” says Stephanie Tandberg, Bales' sister-in-law.

As she spoke in the drizzle at Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Bales’ wife Kari stood silently at her side. Tandberg told reporters the family shares the nation’s despair over the massacre, but questioned the evidence against bales.

“Much of the testimony was painful, even heartbreaking, but we are not convinced the government has shown us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what happened that night,” Tandberg says.

Bales was assigned to a Special Forces outpost in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. On the night of the killings, prosecutors say he drank whiskey and soda with some fellow soldiers and watched a Denzel Washington movie about a man who goes on a killing spree to seek revenge.

After everyone had gone to bed, prosecutors say Bales left on foot to commit his “heinous” crimes in two nearby villages.

His defense team is raising a number of issues including whether Bales acted alone. But at the heart of the defense is a single question: what was Bales’ state of mind?

His attorneys have suggested Bales suffered from PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. It emerged in court that Bales was also taking steroids.

“We need to know what it means when somebody is on steroids, alcohol and sleeping aides," says Bales' attorney Emma Scanlan. "What does that mean about his state of mind?”

Scanlan says the defense team has just now received toxicology results that still need to be analyzed.

Eugene Fidell teaches military justice at Yale law school. He says that avenue of defense could be risky.

“Perhaps there’s a basis for some kind of extenuating or mitigating evidence that would be an effort to negate premeditation, for example, intention," Fidell says. "But voluntary intoxication: military law is not friendly to that kind of defense.”

In court, prosecutors used Bales’ own words to try to demonstrate he was aware of his actions and able to express guilt shortly after the killings: “I thought I was doing the right thing.” Bales also reportedly said: “it’s bad, really bad.”

But defense lawyer Scanlan notes Bales has yet to go through the Army’s Sanity Board process.

“We don’t know so many things about this case that we ask that everybody keep an open mind as we go forward, as we investigate what is actually going on here.”

In closing arguments, Scanlan tried to convince the investigating officer to take the death penalty off the table. On that point the prosecution said the “sheer brutality” of the crimes justifies that if Bales is ultimately convicted of premeditated murder he should face the possibility of execution.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."