Afghan massacre: In US soldier plea deal, signs combat stress was considered

After long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, analysts say, the military justice system may well be primed to offer lenient sentencing for crimes when post-traumatic stress disorder is seen as a factor.

Peter Millett/Reuters/File
Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales (l.) and Judge Col. Jeffery R. Nance are seen in a courtroom sketch during his arraignment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, January 17. Bales, accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in two rampages from his Army post last year has reached a plea deal with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty, his lawyer said Wednesday.

With news that Staff. Sgt. Robert Bales will plead guilty to the 2012 massacre of 16 Afghan civilians near his base in Kandahar province in order to avoid being executed come questions, too, about the extent to which veterans’ pleas of post-traumatic stress might impact the sentences they receive.

After long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, analysts say, the military justice system may very well be primed to offer lenient sentencing for crimes committed by soldiers suspected of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even though the condition is considered insufficient grounds for mounting an insanity defense.

This might include cases as tragic as the murders that Bales will admit to committing – the killings have been called the deadliest war crime by a US soldier in the post 9/11 era – as well as lesser offenses like drunk driving and robbery.

Staff Sgt. Bales, a veteran of three lengthy tours in Iraq, is charged with leaving his small US outpost in the violent region of Kandahar province in March of 2012 and shooting or stabbing 16 unarmed people – most of them children – who lived in two villages near the base.

The defense is not disputing these facts.

Rather, Bales’ lawyer, John Henry Browne, has stressed that this was the soldier’s fourth combat tour, and that he was suffering from PTSD as well as a traumatic brain injury.

Mr. Browne has suggested that Bales was under the influence of alcohol and steroids as well.

The anger that the killings generated throughout Afghanistan forced the US military to put operations in the country on hold for weeks.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the defense team had Bales examined by psychiatrists, who concluded that he was not insane at the time of the attack, Browne told the Associated Press. “His state of mind does not rise to the level of a legal insanity defense.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t meet the threshold for an insanity defense, either, however, since under military law only legal insanity can excuse or be a lawful defense for any type of crime.

That said, his state of mind has been a pivotal aspect of the defense team’s case.

So what does the plea agreement – in which Bales pleads guilty and will be sentenced to life in prison in order to avoid being executed – say about the willingness of the military justice system to take into account the impact of war on the psyche of US troops who have been fighting America’s wars for more than a decade?

After all, the US military hasn’t executed anyone since 1961, analysts point out.

“In light of the experience of so many people serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think there is more openness in acknowledging that people may struggle with PTSD as they come back home,” says a US military lawyer, who asked for anonymity because he is not authorized to speak with the press.

“If in sentencing they feel that PTSD might have prompted the misbehavior or might have clouded the individual’s values in some way, that can be used to reduce sentence in the eyes of the jury or the judge.”

While arguments of PTSD may be used to mitigate a sentence, however, they cannot be used to excuse the crime, the military lawyer points out.

That said, “He’s been deployed for years, and I think a panel [of jurors] might have sympathy for him,” says Richard Rosen, director of the Center for Military Law and Policy at Texas Tech University School of Law and a former attorney in the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps. “They may be more open to the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome.”

And that is indeed the hope in any plea bargain made by Bales’ defense team, which has emphasized the impact of repeated deployments to war.

“He’s broken,” Browne said. “And we broke him.”

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