Sgt. Bales Avoids Death Penalty By Pleading Guilty To Afghan Attack

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Sgt. Robert Bales told a military court on Wednesday that he killed 16 Afghan villagers during a late-night rampage last year. His admission is part of a plea deal that will likely allow Bales to escape the death penalty.


Yesterday, an Army judge accepted the guilty plea of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. Bales is on trial at a military base in Washington State for the massacre last year of 16 people, mostly women and children, in a rural Afghan village. By pleading guilty, Bales will avoid the death penalty.

But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the work of his lawyers is not yet done.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The court would not allow recordings, sparing the American public the sound of a U.S. Army staff sergeant methodically and repeatedly confessing to murder. The words were prepared by lawyers but that made them no less chilling. For each victim, Bales read and re-read variations of the same statement.

He said he left his base, observed his victim. He formed the intent to kill his victim and then he did kill his victim with a firearm. Sixteen times, Bales read that paragraph. Finally, the judge, Colonel Jeffrey Nance, asked him why. Bales replied that it was something he'd asked himself a million times, but that he had no explanation. He also offered no apology.

After the proceedings, Bales' military lawyer, Major Greg Malson, said the moment for apologies had not yet come.

MAJOR GREG MALSON: Understand that today was just his acceptance of responsibility.

KASTE: By pleading guilty, Bales has avoided the death penalty, but his lawyers hope for more. The sentencing trial will be in front of a jury, a jury composed of officers and some enlisted personnel. Outside the court, Bales' lawyers already seemed to have some arguments in mind for the jury. Emma Scanlan is one of his civilian lawyers.

EMMA SCANLAN: Sergeant Bales is a person who would not have done this but for a set of conditions, but for being on his fourth deployment, but for some things in his own mind that couldn't be helped.

KASTE: Bales may have provided an early glimpse of the defense strategy yesterday when he pleaded guilty to the illegal use of steroids. Even as he confessed, he told the judge that the steroids had increased his irritability and anger in Afghanistan. The defense team may also invoke the effects of other drugs, alcohol and possibly PTSD.

No matter what, Bales will get a life sentence, but Scanlan hopes the jury will allow him the possibility of parole.

SCANLAN: And they can decide that he deserves the chance - it's only a chance - but that he deserves the chance to potentially someday be reunited with his family, after he has served the time to punish him for what he has done.

KASTE: Under Army rules, Bales would be eligible for parole as soon as 10 years into his sentence; his freedom would be up to a parole board. The mere possibility of such an early release provoked a testy exchange between reporters and another one of Bales's lawyers, John Henry Browne.

JOHN HENRY BROWNE: This system here is not about vengeance. It's about what is just. Now, you may disagree with what is just or not. But that ultimate decision will be the jury's, not yours. Not the people of Afghanistan, which we have tremendous remorse for - and so does our client - but we're not talking about vengeance. We're talking about what's just.

KASTE: But doesn't it send the message, Browne was asked, that the murder of 16 people is somehow different because it happened over there? Yeah, Browne answered, war is hell. It is different.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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