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Army Orders Sgt. Bales To Capital Court Martial

High Desert Warrior
High Desert Warrior. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales

The U.S. Army announced Wednesday that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will face a general court-martial on 16 counts of premeditated murder and other charges. If convicted, the maximum penalty is death. The decision follows a pretrial hearing last month.

An attorney for  Bales says she's "disappointed" by the Army's decision to seek the death penalty against the Washington-based soldier accused of massacring Afghan villagers in March.

"The capital recommendation is pretty consistent with the Army's systemic inability to acknowledge the problems they have in treating mentally wounded soldiers," says Emma Scanlan.

Bales, a married father of two, is accused of conducting killing sprees in two Afghan villages in the early morning hours of March 11 of this year. Most of the victims were women and children. In one of the villages, Army prosecutors say Bales burned the bodies of several of his victims. At Bales' pretrial hearing, the prosecution played surveillance video they said showed the soldier returning to his Army outpost bloodied and wrapped in a cape after committing the second set of killings.

According to the Army, for the death penalty to be imposed the court-martial members would have to unanimously agree on three things: Bales committed at least one capital punishment-eligible crime, at least one aggravating factor existed and that aggravating factor is not outweighed by extenuating or mitigating circumstances. The last U-S military execution was in the 1960s.

Bales was on his fourth combat deployment at the time of the killing spree. Defense attorney Scanlan says after Bales returned from his third deployment to Iraq in 2010, he filled out a post-deployment questionnaire for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Based on the answers he gave, Scanlan says Bales was referred to a PTSD/TBI clinic at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Scanlan says the defense is "still exploring" whether Bales received treatment at that clinic. But she adds, "I think that the way that [the Army has] done these post-deployment screenings for TBI and PTSD is extremely problematic on a systemic and on an individual level."

Scanlan says another mitigating factor in this case is that Bales was an infantry soldier assigned to a Special Forces outpost. In the pretrial hearing it came out that Bales had been taking steroids and, the night of the killings, drank whiskey and soda with fellow soldiers.

Scanlan says the Army's decision to pursue the death penalty is "a way for them to ignore the responsibility of the Special Forces for giving our client steroids and alcohol ... in a very hostile environment and they were giving it to a person who was not entirely stable."

Army prosecutors do not comment on active cases.

Before he stands trial, Bales is scheduled to undergo a sanity board review to determine his mental competency. But the defense objects to the Army's process for conducting this review. Scanlan says under the current rules, Army prosecutors would be allowed to know any mental health diagnosis even if the defense doesn't ultimately mount an insanity defense. "I don't have a problem with them looking at our client's competency [to stand trial] ... but I do have a problem with the prosecutors knowing my client's mental health diagnosis when I haven't raised a mental defense," says Scanlan.

A spokesman at Joint Base Lewis-McChord says Bales will be arraigned on the charges prior to the court-martial. Dates have not been set for either. 

The charges are as follows:

  • 16 counts premeditated murder
  • 6 counts attempted murder
  • 7 counts assault
  • 2 counts conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline
  • 2 counts wrongful use of controlled substance (steroids)
  • 1 count violation of a lawful order (consuming alcohol)