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Afghan massacre: Jurors decide Robert Bales should have no chance of parole

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales pleaded guilty in June to killing 16 Afghan villagers last year. On Friday, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

By Chelsea B. SheasleyCorrespondent / August 23, 2013

In this courtroom sketch, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, left, appears before Judge Col. Jeffery Nance in a courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, during a sentencing hearing in the slayings of 16 civilians killed during predawn raids on two villages on March 11, 2012.

Peter Millett/AP

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Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who pleaded guilty to killing 16 Afghans in a shooting spree last year, was sentenced Friday to life in prison without parole, legally closing an episode of one of the worst atrocities of the Afghanistan war.

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Chelsea Sheasley is the Monitor's Asia Editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine.

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Jurors deliberated for less than two hours after hearing closing arguments Friday morning at the sentencing hearing for Bales, who pleaded guilty in June to avoid the death penalty. A jury of six soldiers was asked to decide if Bales deserved a sentence of life in prison or the possibility of parole after 20 years. 

The “stomach churning” words of Bales to a fellow soldier midway through the attack were enough to prove he knew what he was doing in the early-morning massacre, prosecutor Lt. Col. Jay Morse said Friday morning at the hearing at an Army base in Washington State.

Bales woke up a fellow soldier partway through his rampage and said, “My count is 20,” referring to the number of people he thought he’d killed, Morse said. Bales was returning to his base in Kandahar Province to get more ammunition for the shooting spree when he told the soldier of the killings, but the soldier didn’t believe him and went back to sleep, BBC reports.

Prosecutors on Friday morning showed pictures of a young girl whom Bales killed, as well as video surveillance that showed him returning to the base with "the methodical, confident gait of a man who's accomplished his mission,” Morse said. 

Defense attorney Emma Scanlan acknowledged the atrocities, but asked jurors to weigh his earlier honorable record in the military and give him a “sliver of light” with a sentence that had the possibility of parole.

Defense lawyers had suggested in the past few months that post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury played a role in the massacre. Yet they chose not to call any medical witnesses or present evidence that Bales was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental-health issues.

The Seattle Times, quoting defense lawyer John Henry Browne, said "he has ‘a ton of documentation’ from Bales’ Army medical file and other sources proving his client’s PTSD, but the defense chose not to introduce it.”

“We didn’t want to open that door,” Mr. Browne said, “because then, you get into a battle of the experts. I don’t think juries like that.”

Instead, the defense called former soldiers and friends, including former NFL player Marc Edwards, to vouch for Bales’s character.

For Bales to have received the possibility of parole, at least two jurors would have had to support such a sentence.

The closing arguments and sentence came a day after Bales apologized in court.

“I am sorry, truly, truly sorry, for what I did to those people,” he said. “I murdered their families. If I could bring their family members back, I would in a heartbeat.”

Nine Afghans who were flown in for the sentencing hearing to testify against Bales chose not to be in court when he spoke.

"If someone loses one child, you can imagine how devastated their life would be," said Haji Mohammad Wazir, who lost 11 family members, including his mother, wife, and six of his seven children, in Bales's attack.

Bales took the stand Thursday in unsworn testimony so he could not be cross-examined by the prosecution. He did not describe the killings or why they happened.

Bales described the trouble he had readjusting to civilian life after deployments, including becoming angry, drinking heavily, and taking sleeping pills. He began to see a counselor but quit because he didn't think it was working and he didn't want to appear weak, he said.

When Bales pleaded guilty, he said he could offer no explanation for his actions: “As far as why: I've asked that question a million times since then," he said. "There's not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did." 

The killings “marked the worst case of civilian deaths blamed on a U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and further eroded strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in Afghanistan,” Reuters wrote. 

 Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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