U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was formally charged Friday with 17 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder, and six counts of assault. The formal accusations come almost two weeks after Bales allegedly walked door to door on the morning of March 11 and shot Afghan civilians asleep in their homes in the village of Belambey, in southern Afghanistan; after the killings he attempted to burn the bodies. His victims included nine children, one of whom was only two years old.
It's the worst atrocity that an American soldier has been accused of committing against Afghan civilians in the ten-year-old war in Afghanistan. If convicted by a military court, Bales could face the death penalty, or a minimum sentence of life with the possibility of parole.
Bales, 38, was read the charges at the U.S. military's prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he has been held for the past week, the Pentagon said.
While it had previously been widely reported that there were 16 people killed in the March 11 attacks in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, American military investigators have apparently found evidence that there were 17 people killed, a U.S. military official in Afghanistan said.
"The reason for 17 vs 16 counts of murder is that the investigators felt that after they had collected the necessary evidence that they had justification to charge SSG Bales with 17 counts," Col. Gary Kolb, a spokesman for the U.S.-led ISAF command in Afghanistan, told Yahoo News by email Friday. "I will reiterate that the investigation and collection of evidence is ongoing."
A copy of the charges filed against Bales Friday, which were filed under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), sent to Pentagon journalists by Bales' home base of Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington state, appear to redact the names of those he is accused of killing, describing them as female or male civilians or children appearing to be of Afghan descent.
Bales' civilian Seattle lawyer, John Henry Browne, has indicated he will question the Army's decision to deploy Bales to Afghanistan in December with a concussive brain injury sustained on his third tour in Iraq. "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," he told journalists in Lansing, Kansas, last week, ahead of meeting with Bales in Leavenworth.
He said Bales has only a hazy memory of what transpired the night in question. Pentagon officials said that alcohol was found in Bales' living area, but Browne has not indicated if he believed it played a role in Bales' alleged acts.
But the charges of premeditated murder indicate that military prosecutors "plan to argue that he consciously conceived the killings," MSNBC reported. "A military legal official for U.S. forces in Afghanistan who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the case, noted that premeditated murder is not something that has to have been contemplated for a long time."
Bales' defense team may try to argue that his acts "were not premeditated," Daniel Conway, a military lawyer who represented another U.S. soldier charged in 2010 with killing Afghan civilians, told Yahoo News this week. That could possibly get his charges reduced to lesser offenses, such as second-degree murder or even manslaughter.
Such determinations "are very relevant" in deciding whether Bales will face the death penalty for his alleged acts, Conway said.
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