JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – Army prosecutors Tuesday asked an investigative officer to recommend a death penalty court-martial for a staff sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in a predawn rampage, saying that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales committed "heinous and despicable crimes."
Prosecutors made their closing arguments after a week of testimony in the preliminary hearing. Prosecutors say Bales, 39, slipped away from his remote base at Camp Belambay in southern Afghanistan to attack two villages early on March 11. Among the dead were nine children.
The slayings drew such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before American investigators could reach the crime scenes.
"Terrible, terrible things happened," said prosecutor, Maj. Rob Stelle. "That is clear."
Stelle cited statements Bales made after he was apprehended, saying that they demonstrated "a clear memory of what he had done, and consciousness of wrong-doing."
Several soldiers testified that Bales returned to the base alone just before dawn, covered in blood, and that he made incriminating statements such as, "I thought I was doing the right thing."
An attorney for Bales argued there's not enough information to move forward with the court-martial.
"There are a number of questions that have not been answered so far in this investigation," attorney Emma Scanlan told the investigating officer overseeing the preliminary hearing.
Scanlan said that it's still unknown what Bales' state of mind was the evening of the killings.
An Army criminal investigations command special agent had testified last week that Bales tested positive for steroids three days after the killings, and other soldiers testified that Bales had been drinking the evening of the massacre.
"We've heard that Sgt. Bales was lucid, coherent and responsive," Scanlan said in her closing argument. "We don't know what it means to be on alcohol, steroids and sleeping aids."
The investigating officer said Tuesday that he would have a written recommendation by the end of the week, but that is just the start of the process. That recommendation goes next to the brigade command, and the ultimate decision would be made by the three-star general on the base. There's no clear sense of how long that could take before a decision is reached on whether to proceed to a court-martial trial.
If a court-martial takes place, it will be held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Washington state base south of Seattle, and witnesses will be flown in from Afghanistan.
The military hasn't executed a service member since 1961, and none of the six men on death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., today were convicted for atrocities against foreign civilians. All of their crimes involved the killing of U.S. civilians or fellow service members.
In the most recent high-profile case at Joint Base Lewis-McChord before Bales, the Army did not seek a death penalty court-martial against five soldiers accused of killing three Afghan civilians for sport. In that case, the ringleader was sentenced to life in prison with possibility of parole.
Bales faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder. The preliminary hearing, which began Nov. 5, included nighttime sessions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the convenience of the Afghan witnesses. Bales did not testify.
The witnesses included a 7-year-old girl, who described how she hid behind her father when a gunman came to their village that night, how the stranger fired, and how her father died, cursing in pain and anger.
None of the Afghan witnesses were able to identify Bales as the shooter, but other evidence, including tests of the blood on his clothes, implicated him, according to testimony from a DNA expert.
After the hearing concluded, Scanlan spoke with reporters, saying that in addition to questions about Bales' state of mind, there are still questions of whether there were more people involved.
During testimony, a special agent testified that months after the killings, she was able to interview the wife of one of the victims, who recounted having seen two U.S. soldiers. Later, however, the woman's brother-in-law, Mullah Baraan, who was not present at the shootings, testified that the woman says there was only one shooter. The woman herself did not testify.
"We need to know if more than one person was outside that wire," Scanlan said.
Scanlan also raised the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injury, noting that Bales had received a screening at the traumatic brain injury clinic at Madigan Army Medical Center during a period of time that the center is under investigation for reversing hundreds of PTSD diagnoses of soldiers since 2007.
"We're in the process of investigating that," she said.
When asked if Bales had ever been diagnosed with PTSD, Scanlan said, "I'm not going to answer that right now."
Dan Conway, a military defense lawyer based in New Hampshire, said Tuesday that PTSD must be considered as a factor in the case.
"I think the defense team has an obligation to meet with doctors and determine if PTSD affected Bales' ability to premeditate the murders," Conway said. "It could play a very important role."
Bales' wife, Kari, and her sister, Stephanie Tandberg, met with reporters briefly after the hearings concluded. Tandberg read a statement, saying "we all grieve deeply for the Afghani families who lost their loved ones on March 11, but we must all not rush to judgment."
Last week, the lead prosecutor, Lt. Col. Jay Morse, said on the night of the killings Bales watched a movie about a former CIA agent on a revenge killing spree, with two fellow soldiers, while drinking contraband whiskey. Morse said Bales first attacked one village, Alkozai, returned to the base at Camp Belambay, then headed out again to attack a second village, Najiban. Bales returned to the base covered in blood, Morse said, and his incriminating statements indicate he was "deliberate and methodical."
In the family statement, Tandberg said: "We all want very much to know how, why, and what happened. ... Much of the testimony was painful, even heartbreaking, but we are not convinced the government has shown us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about what happened that night. ... We know Bob as bright, courageous and honorable, as a man who is a good citizen, soldier, son, husband, father, uncle and sibling. We in Bob's family are proud to stand by him."