SEATTLE (AP) — The Army staff sergeant charged with slaughtering 16 villagers during one of the worst atrocities of the Afghanistan war has agreed to plead guilty in a deal to avoid the death penalty, his attorney told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is scheduled to enter guilty pleas to charges of premeditated murder June 5 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, said lawyer John Henry Browne. A sentencing-phase trial set for September will determine whether he is sentenced to life in prison with or life without the possibility of parole. The judge and commanding general must approve a plea deal.
Browne previously indicated Bales remembered little from the night of the massacre, but he said the soldier will give a full account of what happened before the judge decides whether to accept the plea.
Bales, an Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., slipped away from his remote southern Afghanistan outpost at Camp Belambay early on March 11, 2012, and attacked mud-walled compounds in two slumbering villages nearby.
Most of the victims were women and children, and some of the bodies were piled and burned. The slayings drew such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan. It was three weeks before American investigators could reach the crime scenes.
Bales was serving his fourth tour in a combat zone, and the allegations against him raised questions about the toll multiple deployments were taking on American troops. For that reason, many legal experts believed it that it was unlikely that he would receive the death penalty, as Army prosecutors were seeking. The military justice system hasn’t executed anyone since 1961.
Nevertheless, the plea deal could inflame tensions in Afghanistan. In interviews with the AP in Kandahar in April, relatives of the victims became outraged at the notion Bales might escape the death penalty and even vowed revenge.
“For this one thing, we would kill 100 American soldiers,” said Mohammed Wazir, who had 11 family members killed that night, including his mother and 2-year-old daughter.
“A prison sentence doesn’t mean anything,” said Said Jan, whose wife and three other relatives died. “I know we have no power now. But I will become stronger, and if he does not hang, I will have my revenge.”
Three of Jan’s other family members were wounded, including his 7-year-old granddaughter, who was shot in the head.
Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle
AP’s special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Kathy Gannon, contributed from Kandahar.