Army: Soldier, wife laughed about Afghan slaying charges

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD — Army prosecutors said Monday they have a recording of a phone call in which Staff Sgt. Robert Bales and his wife laugh as they review the charges filed against him in the killing of 16 Afghan villagers.

Bales, an Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, pleaded guilty in June in a deal to avoid the death penalty for killing the civilians, mostly women and children, on March 11, 2012.

His sentencing begins on Tuesday with the selection of a military jury. Prosecutors told the judge, Col. Jeffery Nance, on Monday they hope to play the recording, among others, to show a lack of remorse on Bales’ part. He faces life in prison either with or without the possibility of release.

“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 clips of the recordings were taken out of context. Nance said he will listen to the entire recordings before deciding whether they can be used at the sentencing.

Prosecutors have flown in nine Afghan civilians from Kandahar Province, and the sentencing, scheduled to last about a week, is expected to afford them their first chance to sit face-to-face with Bales since he stormed their mud-walled compounds.

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 from an arm’s length away.

The villagers, some of whom have expressed outrage that Bales is going to escape the death penalty, have not encountered him in person since the attack, nor have they heard him apologize. Bales, who told a judge at his plea hearing that he couldn’t explain why he committed the killings, did not say then that he was sorry, but his lawyers hinted that an apology might be forthcoming at his sentencing.

The Army has not identified the witnesses it has flown in from Afghanistan. They are expected to testify in Pashtun through an interpreter, a prosecutor said Monday.

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.

Bales’ defense team said Monday it 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,” said John Henry Browne, one of his civilian attorneys. “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.”

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 on March 11, 2012. 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.

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.

Browne declined to say who might testify on Bales’ behalf at the sentencing. At an earlier hearing, Bales’ lawyers said those who might testify include an aunt, who could speak about any family history of mental health issues; an older brother; a principal and football coach from Norwood High School in Norwood, Ohio, where Bales grew up; and his high school football teammate Marc Edwards, who went on to become a running back on NFL teams, including the 2002 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.

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