An American soldier will face a court martial where he could be given the death penalty if found guilty of murdering 16 Afghan civilians in a nighttime rampage earlier this year, the Army announced today.
The charges stem from a horrific event in March when Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is alleged to have snuck out of his remote outpost in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar to go on a shooting spree in two nearby villages. The pre-dawn attack left 16 villagers dead and six injured. Nine of those killed were children.
In a preliminary hearing, several of his fellow soldiers testified that Bales returned to the base alone just before dawn, covered in blood, and that he made incriminating statements such as, "I thought I was doing the right thing." Some of the blood on his person was later matched to at least one of the shooting victims, according to prosecutors.
In addition to 16 counts of murder, Bales was charged with six counts of attempted murder and seven counts of assault.
In the November preliminary hearing, evidence was presented that suggested Bales purportedly conducted the alleged massacre as revenge for previous attacks on his unit, particularly a roadside bomb attack a few weeks earlier that severely wounded a fellow soldier. Bales did not testify during the two week hearing, which was to determine if he would face a court martial, but some of the surviving villagers did appear via satellite from Afghanistan.
Some of his squad mates admitted to having consumed alcohol prior to the attacks, but said Bales did not seem to have been incapacitated by the alcohol.
Bales' attorneys said in the earlier hearing his client's mental state may have possibly been clouded by the alcohol as well as steroids and sleeping aids he had taken, but prosecutors countered that comments made by Bales after he was apprehended demonstrated he had a clear state of mind about the violent acts he is alleged to have committed.
An Army press release said that Bales faces a maximum punishment of death if he is convicted of the charges against him. However, the release noted it may be difficult for prosecutors to obtain such a sentence.
"For capital punishment to be imposed, the court-martial members must unanimously find: the service member 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 found by the court-martial members," it says.
There has not been a military execution since 1961. No starting trial date has been set for Bales.