Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, shown in August 2011, faces 17 counts of murder… (Spc. Ryan Hallock, U.S.…)
Reporting from Washington — Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder in connection with a nighttime massacre at two remote Afghan villages, after villagers say he burst into the homes of civilians with a pistol, rifle and grenade launcher and indiscriminately shot family members in the head, neck, chest and groin.
The charges, read Friday to the 38-year-old husband and father at the Army's Joint Regional Correctional Facility on Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., could lead to the death penalty, the military said. He is also charged with six counts of assault and attempted murder. Officials had previously said there were 16 slain, but now put the number at 17.
The apparently unprovoked shooting rampage March 11 in southern Afghanistan that claimed the lives of nine children and eight adults has deeply shaken U.S.-Afghan relations and fueled outrage against the continued U.S. presence in that country. According to reports from the scene, some of the children were dragged by their hair out of bed; some of the bodies were burned.
Bales is accused of sneaking away from his combat post and carrying out a one-man rampage, armed with a 9-millimeter pistol and an M-4 rifle, which was also outfitted as a grenade launcher, officials said.
The formal charges open what is expected to be a long and protracted legal fight. Though Friday's proceedings were held in Kansas, the legal case will be moved to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in the Tacoma, Wash., area, where Bales is based. It is likely that he will be transferred there.
His attorney, John Henry Browne, says that Bales remembers very little of the incident and has only fleeting memories of what happened before and after the predawn ambush. However a senior U.S. official has said Bales initially told other soldiers he shot several Afghan men, but did not mention that a dozen women and children were among the dead.
The defense lawyer also has said that Bales' four combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan since he enlisted two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had pushed him to his limits. He said his client may well be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Browne has indicated he may mount a "limited mental capacity" defense.
Browne did not immediately respond to the filing of charges.
Some military law experts believe it could be difficult for Army prosecutors to win a conviction against Bales given the hostile combat situation in Afghanistan and that country's initial demand he be tried there.
"There's going to be a lot of impediments for the government to overcome," predicted Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale University. "It's a dangerous environment, and people there are really keyed up about Bales and the United States in general."
Jack B. Zimmermann, co-chairman of the Military Law Committee for the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers, recalled representing Marines linked to 24 deaths in Haditha, Iraq — a case he said fell apart because of problems in gathering evidence and eyewitnesses, and unresolved questions about "who was shot in which order." He also won a dismissal of charges against a Marine for killing an Iraqi detainee after the autopsy "was conducted in a combat zone and the body parts had deteriorated."
But a third expert, attorney James Culp, said Army prosecutors should be able to collect the victims' DNA blood samples on Bales' uniform, and possibly his DNA on them. Because some victims were dragged, there may have been evidence from the suspect's fingernails, Culp said. Bullet holes and spent shells, as well as blood splatter in the victims' homes, also could be used as evidence against Bales, he said.
"It won't be like 'CSI' and a perfect world," Culp said, referring to the television drama about crime scene investigations. "But I don't think they will have that hard of a time putting their case together."
He said one drawback might be getting witnesses, especially women, to agree to come to the U.S. to testify. Another risk for prosecutors is death penalty itself. "You make it twice as hard to try and 10 times more likely it will get kicked back on appeal," he said.