By KIRK JOHNSON
Sergeant Bales’s court-martial will consider 16 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder and seven counts of assault, among other charges, but no trial date was set.
The Army has charged that Sergeant Bales, 39, who was serving his fourth combat tour, walked away from a remote outpost in southern Afghanistan and shot and stabbed members of several families in an ambush in two villages in the early morning hours of March 11. At least nine of the people he is accused of killing were children.
Prosecutors at a week of pretrial hearings in early November at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where Sergeant Bales was stationed, suggested that he had acted in deliberate fury, perhaps in revenge for a bomb attack that had caused a fellow soldier to lose a leg. Defense lawyers said evidence presented in the hearing about Sergeant Bales’s use of alcohol, steroids and sleeping aids complicated the picture of his mental state.
Sergeant Bales’s lead lawyer, John Henry Browne, called the Army’s decision to move ahead on what appears to be a fast track of prosecution “understandable but totally irresponsible.”
“The Army is trying to take the focus off the failures of the Army, which are substantial,” Mr. Browne said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. He said that Sergeant Bales, who has pleaded not guilty, had post-traumatic stress and a concussive head injury, but that the Army sent him anyway “to one of the more intense battlegrounds of Afghanistan, on his fourth deployment.”
For both sides the legal path ahead promises to be long and winding.
Since the system for military prosecutions in capital cases was revised in 1984, 16 men have been sentenced to death and five are on death row. Nine of those sentences were set aside on appeal and two were commuted to life in confinement.
The rules require that a death sentence be approved by the president to be carried out, and that has happened only once in any of the 16 cases, in 2008, under President George W. Bush. That case was then tied up in appeals. No military death sentence has been carried out since 1961.
For capital punishment to be imposed, the Army said in a statement, the court-martial panel must unanimously find Sergeant Bales guilty, with at least one aggravating factor that “substantially” outweighs any extenuating or mitigating circumstances.