Graphic photos, testimony shed light on Sgt Bales' actions in Afghan massacre

Tacoma News TribuneAugust 20, 2013 

Army prosecutors did not embellish much as they introduced their case against the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier who massacred 16 Afghan civilians last year in a solitary killing spree outside of his combat outpost.

Instead, gory photos of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ youngest victims spoke for themselves.

Bales couldn’t look at them. He tended to close his eyes and glance to the side when prosecutors presented a series of photos showing the bloodied head of a young girl he shot inside her Kandahar Province home. She survived with the help of Army doctors at a nearby NATO base.

Those images in court contrasted with the monotone voice prosecutor Lt. Col. Morse used to read a 32-page document that Bales has agreed presents an accurate picture of his actions on the night he twice slipped out of his combat outpost to slaughter civilians in their homes. Morse read it at the start of the trial, a moment when prosecutors normally present their opening arguments.

The document generally presents Bales, 39, as troubled by his failure to earn a promotion, drowning in debt and irritated by his family. It does not mention any of the combat-related trauma he might have experienced on past deployments that defense attorneys have suggested shaped some of his decisions.

It suggests Bales did not value his life and did not want to return from his deployment with a Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade to his wife and two kids.

“The whole truth is I don’t think I can dig my way out of this mess,” Bales wrote in an email to financial adviser in an email that was excerpted in the document Morse read.

The so-called stipulation of fact presents the Army’s fullest understanding of Bales’ massacre. Bales agreed to it in June when he pleaded guilty to the murders.

Bales’ sentencing trial is moving fast now that a six-member jury panel has been selected. Three Afghan survivors of the attack have testified this afternoon.

One, Haji Mohammed Naim, cried on the witness stand when Morse asked him how he felt knowing Bales had shot and wounded his son, Sadiqullah.

"For God’s sake, don’t ask me any more questions,” he said through an interpreter.

Bales shot Naim in the neck on the night of the killings. Naim called Bales a “bastard” and said he felt “powerless” since the attack.

11:10 a.m. update: A panel of six senior soldiers will consider Staff Sgt. Robert Bales' fate over the next week at a sentencing trial for the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier who murdered 16 Afghan civilians last year.

The panel consists of three officers and three enlisted soldiers. Attorneys challenged and disqualified two officers and two senior enlisted soldiers based on statements that lawyers believed revealed some form of bias.

The trial is expected to resume at 12:30 p.m.

9:40 a.m. update: No female victims of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ massacre in Kandahar Province last year will testify at his sentencing this week, according to a first look at probable witnesses that attorneys revealed in court today.

Nine Afghan villagers flown in from Kandahar Province are on the witness list, including a father who was shot in the neck as well as teenage boys who were wounded by Bales’ bullets. Haji Mohammed Wazir, who lost 11 relatives in the killing spree, also is on the witness list.

In November, several young Afghan girls testified at a pretrial hearing for Bales over a video link. They included a child named Zardana who was shot in the head on the night of the attack and later received medical treatment at a Navy hospital in San Diego.

None of the girls made the trip to Joint Base Lewis-McChord for this week’s proceedings.

The boys include Sadiqullah, who was shot in the ear, Faizullah, who helped wounded villagers get medical help at a nearby NATO forward base, and Rafiullah, who also was wounded.

Attorneys disclosed the potential witnesses during a morning hearing in which they screened candidates for a court-martial panel that will decide Bales’ sentence. Bales, 39, has already pleaded guilty to the murders.

A long list of witnesses who could be called included several doctors, Bales’ wife, other relatives from the Bales family and Marc Edwards, a high school football teammate of Bales who went on to play in the NFL.

Attorneys listed a number of soldiers who served with Bales in Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment. They include former Sgt. David Godwin, who served with Bales at the outpost in Kandahar where Bales carried out the killings.

Other Army witnesses include soldiers who went on to prestigious positions in the Army after serving with Bales, such as Maj. Brent Clemmer and retired Command Sgt. Maj. Al Bjerke.

Clemmer was Bales' infantry company captain on their 2006-07 tour to Iraq. Clemmer thought highly of Bales, and nominated him for a medal based on "exceptionally valorous" conduct during a battle near Najaf. Clemmer most recently served as the executive officer of Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

Bjerke served on all three of Bales’ combat tours to Iraq. Bjerke was the top enlisted officer in the infantry battalion in Bales’ 06-07 tour there, and he went on to retire as the command sergeant major of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division following the brigade's third mission in Iraq.

Attorneys have not yet completed jury selection. There are 10 potential panelists, including five senior enlisted soldiers and five officers.

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Jury selection is about to begin in the sentencing trial of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier who slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians by himself in March 2012.

Between five and 10 senior soldiers are expected to be seated as jurors today and opening arguments could follow shortly afterward.

Over the next few days, the court-martial panelists will hear evidence and decide whether Bales should receive a life sentence with an opportunity for parole, or a life sentence without parole.

Bales, a veteran of four combat deployments with his Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade, has already pleaded guilty to murdering 16 civilians and wounding six more during his deployment to the Panjwai District of Kandahar Province last year. He admitted that he twice slipped out of the Special Forces outpost where he was serving in the early hours of March 11, 2012 and shot men, women and children in the villages of Alkozai and Najiban.

Prosecutors are aiming for the toughest sentence, life without parole. They are expected to call nine Afghan villagers, some of whom survived the attack or are mourning loved ones.

Villagers speaking to media outlets in recent months have said they were disappointed that Bales will not face the death penalty. They are aware that he struck a plea agreement that capped his sentence at life in prison.

Yesterday, judge Col. Jeffery Nance told prosecutors the witnesses may not discuss their feelings about the plea agreement in front of jurors.

“I understand their passion but this is not the time or place,” he said. The witnesses could be removed from the courtroom if they insist on talking about the plea agreement.

Defense attorneys have a different challenge. They are expected to call mental health experts who will give opinions about whether Bales lost control of himself in part of because of combat-related post-traumatic disorder or traumatic brain injuries.

Nance said that the experts cannot express opinions that contradict Bales’ guilty plea. If they do, perhaps by saying Bales did not know what he was doing on the night of the massacre, Nance said he would void the plea agreement.

In that agreement, Bales insisted he knew his actions would cause mortal harm to the people he shot.

“I will reject the plea and the pleas of guilty and we will start over,” if the experts contradict the plea agreement, Nance said.

The sentencing trial is expected to end by Monday.

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