American Soldier Pleads Guilty In Afghan Massacre

Army Sgt. Robert Bales pleaded guilty Wednesday to killing 16 Afghan civilians in a nighttime massacre. Audie Cornish talks with NPR's Martin Kaste, who listened to Sgt. Bales recount the killings at a military court hearing in Washington state. Bales has struck a deal with prosecutors that will spare him the death penalty.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

To Washington state now in Joint Base Lewis-McChord. That's where Army Sergeant Robert Bales is in military court today. He pleaded guilty to a late-night killing spree in Afghanistan that left 16 villagers dead. His plea should spare Bales the death penalty.

NPR's Martin Kaste has been watching the trial at the base. And, Martin, let's start with Sergeant Bales' confession. We've known that he was going to plead guilty for a week now, but what did he have to say today?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, it wasn't terribly detailed. What he offered the court today was more of a sad litany. He is pleading guilty to killing 16 people that night in March of 2012. So today, he read a kind of a boilerplate that his lawyers prepared for each one of those victims, for all 16.

Every time he read something that ran like this, he said, I left the village stabilization post, went to the nearby village of, and then he filled in the name of one of two villages. While inside the compound at that village, I observed a female or a male I now know to be, and then he inserted the name. These are usually Afghan names that he had some trouble pronouncing.

He then went on to say for each case: I formed the intent to kill this person then did kill him or her by shooting him or her with a firearm and then, in some cases, burning her. This act was without legal justification, and he repeated that 16 times. It took almost 20 minutes.

CORNISH: I understand the judge has had some questions for Bales. What does he ask?

KASTE: The judge has mainly been following up to make sure Bales understands the legal ramifications of his guilty plea. The judge is also probing a little bit to find out whether Bales really agrees with the notion that he had clear intent to commit all of these crimes.

In one case, for instance, the judge explored a bit this question of the burning of these bodies. Perhaps there were still living people being burned. He asked Bales to exactly describe what happened there, and Bales said he remembered there was a kerosene lantern in this room. He remembered having matches in his pocket later, but he did not say that he actually remembered pouring the kerosene on the bodies or lighting the fire. So there's some vagueness there still.

CORNISH: And what's the significance of that? I mean, what does it matter whether he remembers that specific act of setting the fire?

KASTE: Because there's still going to be a sentencing trial, the - there's going to be a jury which will decide whether or not his life sentence, which he's now going to get, will come with the possibility of parole. And his defense team is hoping to make some sort of an argument for mental impairment of some kind.

They can't make an insanity defense. That does not work anymore. But they may talk about drugs or stress or PTSD. In fact, today, Bales also confessed to the crime of taking an illegal steroid to build up muscle mass, and he also said today that taking that steroid increased his irritability and anger. So the more he talks about his state of mind and his intent, the weaker, perhaps, that defense becomes.

CORNISH: Has Sergeant Bales been asked why he did this?

KASTE: The judge did ask him at one point finally, point-blank, why? Why did you do this? And Bales' answer was - I'll read the quote directly. We weren't allowed to record, but this is what he said. He said: I've asked that question a million times since then. There's not a good reason in this world for the why of the horrible things I did. So no explanation that makes any sense to anybody in the courtroom.

CORNISH: Obviously, this has been a very disturbing case. What's been the mood in the courtroom?

KASTE: It's been very somber. Sergeant Bales sits at the table with his defense team. His wife, Kari, sits in the pew with some other family members behind him. He's been very poised and businesslike throughout most of this. Every now and then, he sort of catches himself. There's some emotion peeking through there. But, you know, he did wipe away a tear, I believe.

But really, there seems to be an effort here to try to humanize these victims. The judge and the defendant have both been using their names, even as they trip over these sometimes difficult to pronounce Afghan names. It seems as though almost these people are being rescued a little bit from the anonymity of being mere victims of a war far away.

And throughout this process, as we're hearing the names of children who are shot and killed, we were in the media room here watching this video. We were, through the open window, hearing the sounds from a playground right nearby here on the base where American children were playing.

CORNISH: Martin, thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Martin Kaste speaking with us from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State. That's where Sergeant Robert Bales confessed today to killing 16 civilians in Afghanistan.

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