A jury of six soldiers was selected Tuesday to determine whether the U.S. soldier who killed 16 Afghan civilians during raids on two villages last year will ever have a chance at getting out of prison.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 39, pleaded guilty in June to avoid the death penalty for killing the civilians, mostly women and children, before dawn on March 11, 2012. The six jurors are tasked with determining whether the Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., receives life in prison with the possibility of parole, or without it.
If he is sentenced to life with parole, Bales would be eligible for parole in 20 years, but there's no guarantee it would be granted.
The sentencing is expected to afford victims and their relatives a chance to confront Bales face to face for the first time since he stormed their compounds. The army flew nine villagers, all males, from Kandahar Province. Among them are Haji Mohammad Wazir, who lost 11 family members, including his wife, mother and two brothers; Haji Mohammad Naim, who was shot in the neck; and a teenage boy named Rafiullah, who was shot in both legs.
Several have previously said they are outraged that Bales is escaping the death penalty.
Some victims and witnesses 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 at arm's length.
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. 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.
Prosecutors questioned the potential jurors in hopes of discovering any underlying biases that might affect their ability to serve on the panel. Lt. Col. Rob Stelle asked whether they were serving in Afghanistan at the time of the attacks, whether the attacks hindered their ability to do their jobs, and whether they believe soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder are more likely to commit violent crimes.
Defence attorney John Henry Browne asked whether any potential jurors disagreed with the concept of parole. None did.
Four were dismissed, for reasons ranging from the personal experiences one had with post traumatic stress disorder to the fact that another helped transport Bales around Joint Base Lewis-McChord while he was in custody.
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.
Bales, who told the judge at his plea hearing that he couldn't explain why he committed the killings, has not issued an apology, but his lawyers hinted that one might come at sentencing.
Prosecutors question whether he's remorseful. They asked a judge Monday for permission to play jurors a recording of a phone call of Bales laughing with his wife as they review the charges against him.
"It certainly goes to evidence in aggravation, the attitude of lack of remorse," Stelle told the judge.
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.
"Our general theme is that Sgt. Bales snapped," Browne said earlier. "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."