A defense lawyer for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales said Monday he expects his client to be charged in the murder of 16 Afghans on Thursday. Going into his first face-to-face meetings with Bales, Seattle attorney John Henry Browne said he expected military prosecutors to issue the most severe charges against his client, a 38-year-old career Army soldier and married father of two. And he suggested that the defense may try to argue that Bales should never have been sent to Afghanistan with a concussive brain injury in the first place.
"We know what they are going to say—it's something really bad," Browne told Bloomberg News' David Mildenberg in an interview Monday in Lansing, Kan., near the Fort Leavenworth base where Bales has been held since Friday. The accused staff sergeant is currently residing in a private cell in the military base's medium-security prison.
Reports that Bales' family had been suffering financial difficulties and other strains associated with his repeated absences due to three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan were not relevant, Browne said. He also disputed reported accounts from unnamed military officials that alcohol and marital strains may have been a factor leading up to Bales' alleged March 11 house-to-house shooting rampage, which left nine children dead.
"Everyone has had issues in their lives," Browne told Bloomberg. "Some people do six or seven tours, but the question is whether the last tour was too much for someone with a concussive brain injury."
Daniel Conway, a military lawyer who represented another U.S. soldier charged in 2010 with killing Afghan civilians and also from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, told Yahoo News Monday that a military jury is not likely to be sympathetic to a defense that argues Bales suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was sent on too many deployments.
"Good luck trying to convince a military jury with a PTSD defense," Conway told Yahoo News in a telephone interview Monday. "A lot of them have multiple family stresses. It will be difficult to convince them that kind of defense" is legitimate.
What Browne is probably trying to do is not argue for a complete acquittal of Bales, Conway said, but instead work to ratchet down the charges. A full acquittal would require that Browne convince a military jury that his client "was unable to perceive the wrongfulness of his or her acts," Conway explained. "That's a tough hurdle."
More likely, Bales' defense will argue that his client's acts "were not premeditated," Conway said. That could possibly expose him to lesser offenses, such as second-degree murder or even manslaughter.
Such mental health determinations "are very relevant" in terms of determining whether Bales faces the death penalty for his alleged acts, Conway said.
"Always positive": Neighbors, army colleagues describe Bales
As his legal preparations get under way, military colleagues and neighbors who knew Bales are still reeling from the shock that he is the suspect in the Afghanistan massacre.
Originally from the Cincinnati suburb of Norwood, "Bobby" Bales, the youngest of five sons, was described by neighbors as a well-liked, popular and kind extrovert, a high-school football player who looked out for an autistic child up the street, the New York Times' James Dao reported Monday.
"Mr. Bales was a gregarious, chatty, engaged teenager who played football and threw himself into an array of clubs and activities, including theater," Dao wrote, citing Bales' Norwood High School principal David Griffel: "He's one of those kids you remember: a real extrovert."
Army colleagues in Washington state who served with him in Iraq similarly described a sunny Bales to reporters, using words like "solid," and offering up photos of him wearing a broad grin.
Bales was "a really good" soldier and "one of those guys who was always positive," Maj. Brent Clemmer told NPR's Martin Kaste on Sunday. Clemmer nominated Bales to receive a medal for valor for his conduct in the battle of Najaf in 2007, but he did not receive it, Kaste reported, noting that Bales did get awards for good conduct.
But there may have been signs that things became harder for Bales after his third Iraq tour, in which he suffered a brain concussion when his vehicle hit an IED. On that tour, he also lost part of a foot in another incident.
[Related: Hidden perils of traumatic brain injuries]
"I've talked to people who have done both Iraq and Afghanistan, and they say they'd pick Iraq any day of the week because Afghanistan is just so brutal," Bales' former platoon leader in Iraq, Capt. Chris Alexander, told NPR's Kaste.
Bales' attorney Browne previously said that Bales and his family were unhappy about his most recent deployment to Afghanistan, which he began in December.
The surprise combat tour came after a series of other setbacks and disappointments for Bales and his family related to his Army career over the past year.
In a blog that Bales' wife, Karilyn Bales, kept of family life, which the New York Times reported on, she wrote last year about their disappointment that Bales had not received a promotion to sergeant first class, which would have come with a pay increase of about $350 per month. But she tried to see the bright side, saying maybe it would free the family to relocate to a new military base where they could have adventures and more control over their lives (and fewer combat deployments). On her list of preferred destinations, the Times reported: Germany ("best adventure opportunity!"), Italy, Hawaii ("nuff said!) and Kentucky, near her husband's family in southern Ohio.
That was her last entry, in a blog called the Bales' Family Adventures, which has since been removed.
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