Sgt. Robert Bales charged with premeditated murder of 17 Afghans

Death is among the possible penalties facing Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, if he is convicted of murdering 17 Afghan civilians. A death sentence has not been carried out in the US military since 1961.

Spc. Ryan Hallock/DVIDS/AP/File
This Aug 2011, photo provided by the Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System, shows Sgt. Robert Bales taking part in exercises at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. Bales has been charged with premeditated murder of 17 people in southern Afghanistan.

The US military has charged Staff Sgt. Robert Bales with 17 counts of premeditated murder and the assault and attempted murder of six other civilians in southern Afghanistan.

If Bales is convicted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the penalties he could face include dishonorable discharge, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, total forfeiture of pay and allowances, and death. The death penalty has not been used in the US military since 1961.

Bales will now face something akin to a civilian grand jury proceeding, known as an Article 32 hearing, to be presided over by a military judge.

John Henry Browne, Bales’s Seattle-based lawyer, is widely expected to build a defense for his client based upon post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury, which he has indicated are a result of Bales’s multiple deployments to war zones.

Bales was deployed three times to Iraq previously, including one year-long and one 15-month tour.

Mr. Browne has told reporters that, in 2010, Bales suffered a head injury while riding in a Humvee that flipped over. 

Two days before the murderous rampage, one of Bales’s fellow soldiers stepped on an improvised explosive device, losing his legs, Browne has added, noting that Bale himself has suffered a foot injury.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, for his part, has said the crime that Bales is accused of committing is an aberrant act of a lone gunman.

The shooting spree came closely on the heels of a string of incidents by the US military that have angered Afghans. The US military burning of Qurans sparked violent protests in Afghanistan and reprisal killings by Afghan security forces that resulted in the deaths of two US soldiers. 

Browne will likely point to a US Army study released earlier this year that warned against any attempt to view "soldier misconduct in isolation," because it necessarily "fails to capture the real likelihood that the misconduct was associated with an untreated physical or behavioral health condition, such as increased aggression associated with PTSD." 

“I’m not putting the war on trial,” Browne told reporters this week. “But the war is on trial.”

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