Soldier Who Admitted To Killing Afghans Apologizes In Court

Correction Aug. 23, 2013

In the audio of this story, we misstate Robert Bales' military rank. He is a staff sergeant, not a sergeant.

"Sorry just isn't good enough, but I am sorry." That apology was offered Thursday by Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, in a military court at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. Bales agreed to plead guilty to killing 16 Afghan civilians as part of a deal that spared him the death penalty. His sentencing hearing is wrapping up this week.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In a military court in Washington State today, Army Sgt. Robert Bales offered these words: Sorry just isn't good enough, but I am sorry. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Bales is a staff sergeant.] Bales agreed to plead guilty to killing 16 Afghan civilians, as part of a deal that spared him the death penalty. Now, his sentencing hearing is wrapping up.

And NPR's Martin Kaste is at the hearing at Joint Base Lewis McChord. He joins us now. Martin, this is the first time that the jury heard from Sgt. Bales at any length. What did he say, to explain what he did?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, he talked at length about the anger he felt in the years leading up to the massacre. He said after his second deployment to Iraq, he came back to the U.S. just annoyed and irritated at even the littlest things. He talked about standing there at his sink faced with the dirty dishes, and just being furious that he had to do the dishes. He talked about how certain smells drove him nuts, in his words.

He said that his life just felt wrong and that for a number of years there, leading up to this event in March of 2012, he started to drink, and he started to take sleeping pills. And then he talked about the days leading up to the actual massacre there in Afghanistan, at this remote outpost in Kandahar Province. He talked about how his anger was bubbling up. He was yelling at other soldiers whenever they did some small thing wrong.

He talked at length about this tree. They'd pulled down a tree that was along a roadside, that they suspected the Taliban were using as sort of a marker to detonate IEDs when the U.S. troops went by. So they pulled down this tree. And he spent a whole day, prior to the massacre, just trying to chop up this tree, trying to cut it into small pieces because it just represented the people who were trying to kill him, in his words.

So he was just very angry. And then in the night leading into the massacre, he said he once again took sleeping pills. He'd been on steroids, and he'd been drinking.

BLOCK: Sgt. Bales' lawyers had indicated that the jury would be hearing from experts, from mental health professionals. But in the end, they didn't call any. Any idea why not?

KASTE: It was surprising to everyone who's been following this case. You know, they never promised mental health experts, but they sure sounded like they were going to explore some sort of defense based on PTSD or a brain injury that Sgt. Bales had suffered - something along those lines. But in the end, they just abruptly turned to him.

And without spending lots of the court's time talking about medical professionals' credentials and that sort of thing, they let him sort of insert that into his own narrative about how he felt without the risk of him being cross-examined about the psychological facts because this statement he gave at the end of these proceedings is not something that the prosecutors could question.

So, in some ways, it might have been a tactical decision here, to avoid sort of going down a risky path of trying to blame it on some kind of a mental condition.

BLOCK: So the jury now has this statement from Sgt. Bales. But they also have the testimony that you told us about on the show yesterday, from Afghans whose families were massacred in this assault. Were those family members in court today, to hear what Sgt. Bales had to say?

KASTE: They were not in court, at least not in person. We've asked officials here whether they had some way of listening in or watching; so far, we haven't heard back. But they certainly weren't there in person. And Sgt. Bales' family was. His wife and other members of his extended family were right there in the first two rows, just a few feet away from him as he sort of struggled to stay composed and sort of blew out his cheeks with nervousness, and fought tears. They were there, watching that whole experience. But they were there without the Afghans nearby who had suffered this atrocity.

BLOCK: And we mentioned, Martin, that Sgt. Bales has pleaded guilty. This is a sentencing hearing. What does the military jury have to decide here?

KASTE: Well, Sgt. Bales is pretty much guaranteed a life sentence. He avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty. But the question now before this jury is whether or not his life sentence comes with any possibility that someday, he might be up for parole. That's what's at stake now for this jury.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Martin Kaste at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State. Martin, thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome.

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