SEATTLE (AP) — The U.S. Army said Wednesday it will seek the death penalty against the soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in a predawn rampage in March.
The announcement followed a pretrial hearing last month for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 39, who faces premeditated murder and other charges in the attack on two villages in southern Afghanistan.
The slayings drew such angry protests that the United States temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before American investigators could reach the crime scenes.
Prosecutors said Sgt. Bales left his remote base in southern Afghanistan early on March 11, attacked one village, returned to the base and then slipped away again to attack another nearby compound. Of the 16 people killed, nine were children.
No date has been set for his court-martial, which will be held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle.
Sgt. Bales' civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, said the Army's decision to seek the death penalty against his client is "totally irresponsible."
Mr. Browne told The Associated Press that the Army is simply trying to take the focus off its own failings in sending soldiers into war zones when they already have done multiple deployments and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nothing would be served by executing Sgt. Bales, who was serving his fourth deployment, Mr. Browne said.
Sgt. Bales' wife, Kari Bales, said in a statement Wednesday that she and their children have been enjoying their weekend visits with Sgt. Bales at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and she hopes he receives an impartial trial.
"I no longer know if a fair trial for Bob is possible, but it very much is my hope, and I will have faith," she said.
Sgt. Bales' defense team has said the government's case is incomplete, and outside experts have said a key issue going forward will be to determine if Sgt. Bales suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Sgt. Bales grew up in the Cincinnati suburb of Norwood, Ohio, and served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During last month's preliminary hearing, prosecutors built a strong eyewitness case against the veteran soldier, with troops recounting how they saw Sgt. Bales return to the base alone, covered in blood.
Afghan witnesses questioned via a video link from a forward operating base near Kandahar City described the horror of that night. A teenage boy recalled how the gunman kept firing as children scrambled, yelling: "We are children! We are children!" A young girl in a bright headscarf recalled hiding behind her father as he was shot to death.
An Army criminal investigations command special agent testified earlier that Sgt. Bales tested positive for steroids three days after the killings, and other soldiers testified that Sgt. Bales had been drinking the evening of the massacre.
Prosecutors, in asking for a court-martial trial, have pointed to statements Sgt. Bales made after he was apprehended, saying his comments demonstrated a "clear memory of what he had done, and consciousness of wrongdoing."
Several soldiers testified at a hearing that Sgt. Bales returned to the base alone just before dawn, covered in blood, and that he made incriminating statements such as, "I thought I was doing the right thing."
The U.S. military has not executed anyone since 1961. There are five men currently facing military death sentences, all for murders committed stateside. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, charged in the 2009 rampage that killed 13 and wounded more than two dozen others at Fort Hood in Texas, also could face the death penalty if convicted; no date has been set for his court-martial.
For Sgt. Bales to face execution, the court-martial jury must unanimously find him guilty of premeditated murder; that at least one aggravating factor applies, such as multiple or child victims; and that the aggravating factor substantially outweighs any extenuating or mitigating circumstances.