Staff Sgt. Robert Bales participates in an exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. L
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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — The U.S. soldier who killed 16 Afghan villagers during pre-dawn raids on mud-walled compounds last year is expected to face several survivors of the massacre and relatives of the dead who are outraged his life will be spared.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, an Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., pleaded guilty in June to avoid capital punishment for killing the civilians, mostly women and children, on March 11, 2012.
His sentencing hearing begins today with the selection of at least five jurors whose only task will be to determine if his life sentence offers a chance of parole.
The Army has flown nine villagers from Kandahar Province to testify in Pashtun through an interpreter about how the attack has affected their lives.
Several villagers testified by video link from Afghanistan during a hearing last year, including a young girl in a bright headscarf who described hiding behind her father as he was shot to death. Boys told of begging the soldier to spare them, yelling: “We are children! We are children!” A thick-bearded man told of being shot in the neck by a gunman at arm’s length.
The villagers, some of whom were infuriated Bales is escaping the death penalty, have not encountered him since the attack, nor have they heard him apologize. Bales, who couldn’t explain to a judge why he committed the killings, did not say he was sorry, but his lawyers hinted an apology might come at sentencing.
Prosecutors question whether he’s remorseful. They asked a judge Monday for permission to play jurors a recording of a phone call of Bales laughing with his wife as they review the charges against him.
“It certainly goes to evidence in aggravation, the attitude of lack of remorse,” Lt. Col. Rob Stelle told the judge.
A lawyer for Bales said the recording clips were taken out of context. The judge, Col. Jeffery Nance, said he will listen to the entire recordings before deciding if they can be played.
Bales, on his fourth combat deployment, had been drinking and watching a movie with other soldiers at his remote post at Camp Belambay in Kandahar Province when he slipped away before dawn. Bales said he had also been taking steroids and snorting Valium.
Armed with a 9 mm pistol and an M-4 rifle, he attacked a village of mud-walled compounds called Alkozai then returned and woke up a fellow soldier to tell him about it. The soldier didn’t believe Bales and went back to sleep. Bales left again to attack a second village known as Najiban.
The massacre prompted such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before Army investigators could reach the crime scene.
Bales’ attorneys have said they plan to present evidence that could warrant leniency, including his previous deployments and what they describe as his history of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
One of Bales’ attorneys, Emma Scanlan, said Monday the defense will offer no evidence that the soldier was previously prescribed the anti-malaria drug mefloquine, known by its brand name Lariam. Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a new warning that the drug can cause long-term neurological damage and serious psychiatric side effects.
“Our general theme is that Sgt. Bales snapped,” another of his civilian attorneys, John Henry Browne, said earlier. “That’s kind of our mantra, and we say that because of all the things we know: the number of deployments, the head injuries, the PTSD, the drugs, the alcohol.”
At one point during his plea hearing, the judge asked Bales why he killed the villagers.
Bales responded: “Sir, as far as why — I’ve asked that question a million times since then. There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did.”
If he is sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, Bales would be eligible in 20 years, but there’s no guarantee he’d receive it.