JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. (AP) — Former pro football player Marc Edwards took the witness stand Thursday at the sentencing of the U.S. soldier who massacred 16 Afghan villagers last year, telling jurors he remembered him as a great leader from their high school days.
Lawyers for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales called Edwards as a character witness, hoping to paint a sympathetic picture of the soldier to contrast his own admissions and the testimony of angry Afghan villagers about the horror he wrought.
Wearing the Super Bowl ring he won with the New England Patriots in 2002, Edwards said the slightly older Bales was an "unbelievable leader" who "took me under his wing" on their high school team in Norwood, Ohio. Bales was even magnanimous when Edwards took his position at starting linebacker, he said.
"He came up to me after that practice kind of sheepishly," said Edwards, who played nine years in the NFL. "He says, 'Hey Marc ... I want the team to be successful.'"
Bales, 39, pleaded guilty in June in a deal to avoid the death penalty, acknowledging that he slaughtered 16 people, mostly women and children, during unsanctioned, solo, pre-dawn raids on two villages March 11, 2012. A jury at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle, is deciding whether he should be sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole, or without it.
The jurors on Thursday also heard from an Army officer who served with Bales in Iraq. Maj. Brent Clemmer said it was unfathomable to learn that the competent, positive soldier he knew could have committed the atrocity.
"I walked myself into my office, poured myself a glass of scotch, and cried," he said.
A brother of the soldier testified at Bales' sentencing hearing, on Wednesday, portraying him as a patriotic American, high school class president and football team captain.
"There's no better father that I've seen," William Bales, 55, said of his younger brother. "If you brought the kids in here today, they'd run right to him."
One of Bales' lawyers, John Henry Browne, said after court Wednesday that his client will speak to the jury at the end of the case, and he will offer an apology for his crimes.
On Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, nine Afghan villagers, who traveled about 7,000 miles to testify at the hearing in traditional garb, spoke of their lives since the attacks.
Haji Mohammad Wazir lost 11 family members, including his mother, wife and six of his seven children. He told the six-member jury that the attacks destroyed what had been a happy life. He was in another village with his youngest son, now 5-year-old Habib Shah, during the attack.
"If someone loses one child, you can imagine how devastated their life would be," said Wazir, who received $550,000 in condolence payments from the U.S. government, out of $980,000 paid in all. His son "misses everyone. He hasn't forgotten any of them."
"I've gone through very hard times," he added. "If anybody speaks to me about the incident ... I feel the same, like it's happening right now."
Wazir and a cousin, Khamal Adin, didn't get to say everything they wanted to in court. Each asked for permission to speak after the prosecutors' questions were finished, but the judge said it wasn't allowed.
Bales' attorneys, who have said the soldier suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, didn't cross-examine any of the Afghan witnesses.
Bales, a father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., was serving his fourth combat deployment when he left the outpost at Camp Belambay in the pre-dawn darkness. He first attacked one village, returning to Belambay only when he realized he was low on ammunition, said prosecutor Lt. Col. Jay Morse.
Bales then left to attack another village.
The massacre prompted such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations, and it was three weeks before Army investigators could reach the crime scene.
At the time of the killings, Bales had been under heavy personal, professional and financial stress, Morse said. He had complained to other soldiers that his wife was fat and unattractive and said he'd divorce her except that her father had money. He had stopped paying the mortgage on one of his houses and he was upset that he had not been promoted.
During his plea hearing in June, Bales couldn't explain to a judge why he committed the killings. "There's not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did," he said.
If he is sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, Bales would be eligible in 20 years, but there's no guarantee he would receive it. He will receive life with parole unless at least five of the six jurors say otherwise.
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