Soldier at center of Afghan shootings faces 17 counts of murder

Posted on: 2:41 pm, March 23, 2012, by , updated on: 06:43pm, March 23, 2012

From Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer

WASHINGTON (CNN) – Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will face 17 counts of murder and six counts of assault and attempted murder when he is charged Friday for his alleged role in the killings of Afghan villagers, a senior U.S. official said.

Bales, 38, stands accused of leaving a remote outpost in Kandahar province’s Panjwai district on March 11 and going on a deadly house-to-house rampage.

U.S. and Afghan officials initially said 16 people, including nine children, were killed. While the counts indicate that one more person could have died, officials in United States and Afghanistan could not confirm that.

The U.S official, who spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity because of the nature of the case, could not explain why there will be 17 counts. Afghan government officials in Kabul said the death toll remains at 16, and added they have no record of another death. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force declined to comment on the report of pending charges.

The discrepancy will be explained when charges are filed, said Col. Gary Kolb, an ISAF spokesman.

Of the six people wounded in the attack on the villages, two have been released from a hospital, said Ahmad Javed Faisal, a Kandahar provincial government spokesman.

Bales, who was returned to the United States last week, is being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

His case could go straight to an Article 32 hearing — a military hybrid of a civilian preliminary hearing and grand jury session. Or he could go before a group of mental health experts, who would determine whether his mental health may be a factor in his defense.

An Army general at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, where Bales is assigned, also must appoint an investigating officer who will act as judge in the case through the end of the Article 32 hearing, if there is one. That officer will make recommendations about charges to the general, who will decide if there will be a court martial and on what charges.

Bales’ lawyer, John Henry Browne, told CNN that the case — whenever it comes to trial — is going to be “extremely difficult” for the prosecution.

“They have no murder scene, no forensics,” the lawyer said Thursday night from outside his Seattle office. “I’m going to make them prove every claim.”

Military law experts acknowledge proving the case may be hard, especially given that there are no autopsies to help prove the cause of death — in large part because those killed were buried quickly, in accordance with Islamic tradition — and witnesses may not willingly fly from Afghanistan to the United States to testify.

Asked about Bales’ state of mind, Browne said on “CBS This Morning” Friday that his client hasn’t said much in their meetings and appears to have memory problems predating the incident.

“He has some memories about what happened before the alleged event and some memories after the alleged event and some windows here and there into things, but he really doesn’t have any memory,” Browne said. “He’s kind of in shock.”

Browne told CBS that “The Hurt Locker,” the acclaimed 2008 film about a bomb disposal unit during the Iraq war, is a “Disney movie compared to what these guys are going through.”

“Just seeing people blown apart … picking up body parts, putting them in bags,” he said. “You know, a lot of servicemen go through that and don’t have incidents alleged like this, but it’s pretty horrific. We do know he had a concussive head injury, which is serious. We also know it was not treated for a variety of reasons.”

Afghans are insisting that the suspect be returned to Afghanistan to face trial, with villagers and lawmakers questioning the U.S. military’s account of what happened. But a military official said in Afghanistan on Sunday that Bales will be tried in the United States.

The rampage has strained already tense U.S.-Afghan relations and intensified a debate about whether to pull American troops ahead of their planned 2014 withdrawal. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has demanded that troops withdraw from villages in his nation and return to their larger bases, saying relations between the two countries are “at the end of their rope.”

CNN legal contributor and defense attorney Paul Callan said on CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront” that he believes prosecutors will seek the death penalty against Bales “because this is one of the biggest alleged massacres in memory.”

“You have the diplomatic and political problems that are being caused by this crime,” Callan said. “Afghan citizens will be looking, saying, ‘Is the U.S. seeking justice in this case?’”

But he said that even if prosecutors won a death sentence, it would be unlikely that Bales would face execution for years, perhaps decades.

Bales spoke Wednesday night with his wife, their second such conversation since the attack, Browne said. The couple have two young children together.

The ISAF’s Kolb says if a trial is held in the United States, witnesses could speak via teleconference and may not have to be flown in.

“If witnesses need to be flown in, then, of course, translators are, too, and that can be logistically difficult. But it is a possibility,” Kolb said.

He said the defense attorney would need the protection of coalition forces if he chooses to investigate in Afghanistan. He notes that the Taliban “has already taken some potshots at Afghan investigators that went to the area.”

Accounts from the military, Bales’ family, friends and neighbors paint a portrait of a man who remained committed to serving his country despite wounds he received during three previous combat tours to Iraq — including a traumatic brain injury suffered during a vehicle accident.

But Michael Breen, a former Army captain, told CNN that the speculation about whether his injuries or a possible undiagnosed case of post-traumatic stress disorder contributed to Bales’ actions is unfair to other veterans.

“Sgt. Bales has been through a lot as a soldier. Many of us have,” Breen said. “That is certainly no explanation or excuse for the gross violation of his code of honor, to say the least, and the horrific crimes that he committed.”

CNN’s Mitra Mobasherat, Sara Sidner, Miguel Marquez and Paul Vercammen contributed to this report.