Bales' Case In Pre-Trial Limbo Over 'Sanity Board'

The prosecution of Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, charged with killing 17 Afghan civilians, appears to be stuck in limbo, over the issue of his mental competency. The Army wants to conduct a "sanity board," a medical process conducted by psychologists to evaluate Bales' mental state, but his defense attorneys have instructed him not to cooperate, because they're afraid the sanity board is really a "fishing expedition" for evidence.

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The prosecution of a soldier charged with murdering 17 Afghan civilians appears to have entered a kind of pre-trial limbo. Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and his attorneys have told him not to cooperate with a crucial mental competency hearing.

NPR's Martin Kaste has that story.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Bales' civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, says his client is doing better than expected, considering the circumstances. Speaking to NPR member station KUOW, Browne said Leavenworth beats Afghanistan.

JOHN HENRY BROWNE: They were living in, you know, containers, like on container ships. You're getting shot at, literally, every time you come out to go to the bathroom, do anything. So the fact that he's now in a warm, paved place and getting three meals a day and everything is actually not that bad.

KASTE: Since taking the case, Browne has made a point of talking about the hardships of soldiers on repeat deployments, and he tells reporters that, quote, "the whole war is on trial." As to his client, he says he's telling Bales not to cooperate with something called a sanity board: basically, an interview to determine his mental competence.

BROWNE: I will not and Sergeant Bales will not participate in this sanity board hearing unless he has at least the right to counsel. Frankly, we just don't trust that process.

NEAL PUCKETT: Mr. Browne is just being extra cautious about his client not revealing anything that he doesn't need to reveal to - let's face it - government agents, you know, government agents who happen to be psychiatrists or psychologists.

KASTE: Neal Puckett is a lawyer with extensive court martial experience. He says, under military rules, those doctors are not allowed to disclose to prosecutors anything that Bales might say unless his lawyers decide to make his mental state part of the defense. So there is a degree of confidentiality in theory.

PUCKETT: There are many defense counsel who never trust that just because they presume that everybody who wears the same uniform is susceptible to having coaxed out of them the information that a prosecutor wants.

KASTE: In Puckett's experience, the Army usually allows defense counsel to be present, and it may very well be willing to allow it for Bales. Prosecutors won't comment about the conditions they're setting for the sanity board. These negotiations may serve another purpose: They stop the clock on the military's speedy trial rule. On paper, this court martial is supposed to take place within 120 days. But Puckett says that's not going to happen.

PUCKETT: It can be a mess. This one, I suspect, it's going to be a mess.

KASTE: In fact, it could be years before Bales faces a jury. And stuck in that waiting game is his family. After Bales' arrest, they were hurriedly moved to housing on base near Tacoma. In recent weeks, they've emerged a bit from that protective bubble with the help of the local VFW. Post commander Elmer Clark arranged for them to take part in the local Daffodil Parade.

ELMER CLARK: Where else would you be safer with the two kids than on a float with a bunch of veterans? Little kids need stuff like that.

KASTE: Clark says the family is in turmoil, and the VFW is raising money for them. But as the media turn their focus to the family and to Bales' legal situation, local columnist Peter Callaghan says he has this concern.

PETER CALLAGHAN: I think it's important to have some image of the victims in your head.

KASTE: In the Tacoma News Tribune, Callaghan made a point of publishing the names of the victims.

CALLAGHAN: If all you see is Robert Bales and all you have is his attorney, then you are going to focus on Bales.

KASTE: And as this process stretches on, Callaghan says, he may very well publish those names again. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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