WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. military intends to tell Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales Friday he faces 17 counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder, along with other charges, in connection with a shooting rampage in two southern Afghanistan villages that shocked Americans back home and further roiled U.S.-Afghan relations.
The charges come almost two weeks after the massacre in which Bales allegedly left his base in the early morning hours and shot Afghans, including women and nine children, while they slept in their beds, then burned some of the bodies.
Bales will be read the charges on Friday at the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he has been held since being flown from Afghanistan last week, a U.S. official said.
Bales’ civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, said Friday without commenting on the specific charges that he believes the government will have a hard time proving its case and that at some stage in the prosecution his client’s mental state will be an important issue.
In addition to murder and attempted murder, the charges will include six counts of aggravated assault as well as a number of other violations of military law, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the charges before they were announced.
The 38-year-old soldier and father of two, who lives in Lake Tapps, Wash., faces trial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but it could be months before any public hearing.
Legal jurisdiction in the Bales case is expected to be switched Friday from U.S. Forces-Afghanistan in Kabul to Bales’ home base of Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash., U.S. officials said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said Bales could face the death penalty if he is convicted of murder, but it is unlikely. The U.S. military has not executed a service member since 1961. Legal experts say Bales could face a lengthy prison sentence if convicted.
The attorney said Friday on CBS’ “This Morning” that he spent 11 hours this week with Bales at Leavenworth and found him to be shocked by the accusations against him.
“He has some memories about what happened before the alleged events and some memories after the alleged events and some windows here and there into things, but he really doesn’t have any memory,” Browne said. “My meetings with him clearly indicate to me that he’s got memory problems that go back long before that.”
Browne said Bales had earlier suffered a “concussive injury which is serious” and that it was “not treated for a variety of reasons,” which Browne did not explain.
Browne said his reaction to the government’s allegations is: “Prove it.” He said he believes the government will have difficulty proving its case because “there is no crime scene” and a lack of important physical evidence like fingerprints.
Military authorities had originally said Bales was suspected in the killing of 16 Afghan villagers, nine children and seven adults. They changed that Thursday to 17, raising the number of adults by one but without explaining how the change came about. It’s possible some of the dead were buried before U.S. military officials arrived at the scene of the carnage. Six Afghans were wounded in the attack.
The slaughter of Afghan villagers was yet another blow to U.S-Afghan relations. It followed a series of missteps, including the mistaken burning of Qurans, which prompted violent protests and revenge killings of American troops in the war zone.
The killings also prompted renewed debate in the United States about health care for the troops, who have experienced record suicide rates and high rates of post-traumatic stress and brain injuries during repeated deployments over a decade of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bales was on his fourth tour of duty in a war zone, having served three tours in Iraq, where he suffered a head injury and a foot injury. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, of the 2nd Infantry Division, which is based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Browne has portrayed his client as a patriot, loving father and devoted husband who had been traumatized by a comrade’s injury and sent into combat one too many times.
But there have been conflicting reports about what exactly Bales saw relating to the comrade’s injury. A U.S. defense official said that while it is likely that a soldier from Bales’ unit, based in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, suffered a leg wound a day or two before the March 11 shootings, there is no evidence that Bales witnessed it or the aftermath, or that it played any role in his alleged actions.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an internal review.
Afghan officials have asked the United States for some role in the criminal proceedings, perhaps as observers, and to be kept up to date on the case. The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has not demanded that Bales be turned over to the Afghan justice system, although some in the country’s parliament did. The Afghans have also urged a fast resolution of the case.
Army officials have said Bales was cleared for return to duty after the head injury he suffered in Iraq.
Bales joined the Army in 2001 after a Florida investment business failed and after he had worked with a string of securities operations. Bales and a broker at one company were hit in 2003 with a $1.5 million arbitration ruling after an elderly couple charged that their holdings were decimated.
He also was arrested in 2002 for the drunken assault of a casino security guard and had to complete an anger management class. There also are reports of a second incident involving alcohol, although Bales was never formally charged.
A sheriff’s department report released Thursday says Robert Bales was accused in 2008 in Washington state of shaking hands with a woman, pulling her hand into his crotch and then punching and kicking her boyfriend. It described Bales as “extremely intoxicated.”
Associated Press writers Robert Burns in Washington and Mike Baker and Manuel Valdes in Olympia, Wash., contributed to this report.
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