Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, accused of killing 16 villagers in Afghanistan, deferred entering a plea when he appeared Thursday morning for his arraignment at a hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle.
A veteran of three tours in Iraq before his Afghanistan deployment, Bales, 39, faces 16 murder charges, and other counts including attempted murder, assault and drug and alcohol charges. The proceeding is the equivalent of an arraignment and allows the military to move forward on a court-martial.
Attorneys for Bales have said he is not guilty of the charges.
Bales is accused of leaving his base in southern Afghanistan on March 11 and massacring mainly women and children in two villages and burning some of the bodies. The attack is considered one of the deadliest by a U.S. serviceman on civilians since the Vietnam War atrocities.
During a pretrial hearing in November, witnesses testified that Bales had been angered by a bomb blast near his outpost that severed a fellow soldier’s leg. That could open the door to a defense based on mental trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder or some other form of impairment.
The Army is expected to seek to bar Bales from using any sort of mental health defense at the court-martial, according to documents reviewed by the Associated Press. In order to seek the death penalty, the prosecution must establish that Bales is competent and did not act out of mental illness.
Officials have refused to make some documents about the case available to reporters. That has left civilian defense attorneys as the only source for records on the case, the AP noted.
In the documents reviewed by the wire service, military prosecutors argue that Bales should not be allowed to have any expert witnesses testify about what effect his mental health might have had on his guilt. Nor do they want any expert to testify during the penalty phase of the trial, should it get that far, as to whether any history of traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder should spare him the death penalty.
The military argues that Bales’ lawyers have refused to allow him to participate in a review by a board to determine his sanity.
“An accused simply cannot be allowed to claim a lack of mental responsibility through the introduction of expert testimony from his own doctors, while at the same time leaving the government with no ability to overcome its burden of proof because its doctors have been precluded from conducting any examination of the very matters in dispute,” Maj. Robert Stelle wrote in a motion Jan. 3.
Alternatively, Stelle wrote, the judge should order Bales to immediately undergo the sanity review.
Bales' attorneys have refused to let him take part in the sanity board because the Army would not let him have a lawyer present for the examination, would not record the examination and would not appoint a neuropsychologist expert in traumatic brain injuries to the board, according to the documents.
[For the record, 4:05 p.m. Jan. 17: An earlier version of this post stated that Bales was a veteran of four tours in Afghanistan. In fact, he served four combat tours in all, three in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.]