TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - Military prosecutors said on Monday they would seek the death penalty for a U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers when he ventured out of his camp on two revenge-fuelled drunken forays earlier this year.
The lead prosecutor, Lieutenant Colonel Jay Morse, told a preliminary hearing he would present evidence proving “chilling premeditation” on the part of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The shootings of mostly women and children in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in March marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on an individual U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and eroded already strained U.S.-Afghan ties after more than a decade of conflict in the country.
Bales faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder as well as charges of assault and wrongfully possessing and using steroids and alcohol while deployed.
Morse said he was submitting a “capital referral” in the case, requesting that Bales be executed if convicted.
The hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state was expected to last two weeks and include witness testimony from Afghanistan carried by live video, including testimony from villagers and Afghan soldiers.
At the end, military commanders will decide whether there is sufficient evidence for Bales to stand trial by court-martial.
Bales, dressed in camouflage Army fatigues with his head shaven, embraced his wife in court before the hearing began. He then sat silently watching the proceedings from the defence table as Morse summarized the prosecution’s account of the events of March 10-11.
According to Morse, Bales had been drinking with two fellow soldiers before he left his base, Camp Belambay, and went to a village where he committed the first killings.
Morse said Bales then returned to the camp and told a drinking buddy, Sergeant Jason McLaughlin, “I just shot up some people,” before leaving for a second village and killing more people. Morse called Bales’ actions “deliberate, methodical.”
According to McLaughlin, Bales asked him to smell his rifle and said “I’ll be back at 5 (a.m.). You got me?” McLaughlin said he did not think Bales was serious, and “didn’t think too much about it,” going back to sleep for guard duty that started at 3 a.m.
Prosecutors showed a video shot by night-vision camera from a surveillance balloon over the camp, showing a figure they identified as Bales walking back to the post wearing a dark blue bed sheet or throw rug tied around his neck like a cloak.
He is seen being confronted by three soldiers, including the two men prosecutors said he had been drinking with, who ordered him to drop his weapons and took him into custody as he is heard saying, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
One of the three, Corporal David Godwin, testified that Bales kept repeating the words, “I thought I was doing the right thing,” and “It’s bad. It’s bad. It’s really bad.” Several witnesses said Bales’ trousers were spattered with blood. One said he had a “ghost-like look.”
Godwin recounted that he, Bales and McLaughlin had been drinking whiskey together in McLaughlin’s room while watching the Hollywood film “Man on Fire,” which stars Denzel Washington as a former assassin bent on revenge.
Several witnesses from the camp said Bales had been aggrieved over the lack of action over an improvised explosive device attack on a patrol near the camp several days earlier, in which one U.S. soldier lost the lower part of a leg.
Prosecutors said Bales had been armed with a rifle, a pistol and a grenade launcher on the night in question, and that the killings took place over a five-hour period in two villages. The dead included members of four families, most shot in the head.
When Bales returned to the camp and surrendered his weapons, he was brought to Captain Daniel Fields, team leader, at the camp’s command centre. “What the fuck just happened?” Fields said he asked Bales. He said Bales avoided eye contact and just said “I‘m sorry, I let you down.”
Bales, who was not expected to testify during the so-called Article 32 hearing, had been confined at a military prison in Kansas from March until he was moved in October to Lewis-McChord, where his infantry regiment was based.
John Henry Browne, Bales’ civilian lawyer, has suggested Bales may not have acted alone and may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bales’ wife, Kari, told a local NBC affiliate, KING5-TV, before Monday’s hearing she believed he was innocent, as a massacre of innocent civilians was “not something my husband would have done ... not the Bob that I know.”
The shootings highlighted discipline problems among U.S. soldiers from Lewis-McChord, which was also the home base of four enlisted men from the former 5th Stryker Brigade who were convicted or pleaded guilty to murder or manslaughter over three killings of unarmed Afghan civilians in 2010.
Additional reporting by Laura L. Myers; Writing by Steve Gorman, Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Todd Eastham