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Staff Sgt. Bales Sentenced to Life in Prison for Murdering 16 Afghan Cilvilians

August 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A military jury handed Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales the toughest sentence they could issue for his murder rampage that killed 16 Afghan civilians last year. Bales will serve life in prison without parole. Margaret Warner talks to Adam Ashton, who has been covering the trial for the News Tribute in Tacoma, Wash.
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MARGARET WARNER: We turn to two Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole today for murdering 16 civilians in a solo nighttime rampage in Afghanistan last March. Most of his victims were women and children.

Today’s sentence was the toughest the six-member military jury could impose. The 40-year-old staff sergeant pleaded guilty in June, which spared him the death penalty.

Adam Ashton has been covering this trial for The News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, and joins us now.

Adam Ashton, welcome.

What was this jury weighing in trying to decide what sentence to impose? Well, first of all, what were their options?

ADAM ASHTON, The News Tribune: They only had two options.

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Murder has a mandatory minimum life sentence under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, so Bales only had a choice — option today of life with parole or life without parole. In the morning, we had closing arguments, and the prosecution hit him very hard, saying he was ruthless and cold-blooded and had no remorse.

They showed graphic pictures of his victims, especially children, and they played a video showing Robert Bales leaving the second village he attacked and walking slowly through the fields. While they played that video, the prosecutor said, these are not the movements of someone who doesn’t know what he was doing. They said he was clear-eyed and wanted to murder Afghans that night and that he had no remorse for it when he came back to his base and spoke to soldiers about the massacre.

That was followed by defense arguments that painted Robert Bales as remorseful for the killings. They said he took responsibility for it in signing this plea agreement. And they pointed to an audience full of soldiers and family and friends who have stood by Robert Bales. And they said this was a person who was a good soldier and a good person before his fourth deployment, and he snapped under the pressure of the wars.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the prosecution took the unusual step — it happens rarely in these cases — of actually flying in Afghan civilians who were either victims, but survived, or close witnesses.

What sort of portrait did they paint of what happened that night?

ADAM ASHTON: That was really remarkable to see Afghan villagers in an American military courtroom describing the attack that night. They painted a horrible scene, describing Sergeant Bales as entering their homes and corralling women and children in a room and shooting women and children in that room.

They described themselves as devastated by the loss of their families. They were able to speak pretty candidly about their feelings today in court. They said they were — after the hearing, rather, they said they were disappointed that he didn’t get the death penalty.

MARGARET WARNER: And then what portrait did the defense try to put forward? What kind of testimony, including from Bales himself, did they paint to try to change that or amend that portrait?

ADAM ASHTON: So, Bales gave his first apology in court yesterday. He spoke for about 40 minutes.

And, to me, he seemed very sincere, that he lost control of himself as he tried to cope with anger that he had been experiencing since his second Iraq tour. He never sought consistent help for that anger, and he just snapped, he said. He couldn’t explain the killings. He said he was remorseful for them and he couldn’t apologize enough.

That picture was complemented by testimony from his brother and a childhood friend, who cast him as a social person growing up who took care of other people, including a disabled child.

Then three soldiers testified and described that they thought highly of Bales. And these were very well-respected soldiers who had gone on to great careers in the Army. They had said that Bales performed well in combat and was a good soldier to have in their units.

MARGARET WARNER: Did they offer any testimony that he had really suffered post-traumatic stress disorder or some kind of real psychological problem as a result of — I think this was his fourth combat deployment?

ADAM ASHTON: In the press, we absolutely were expecting that to come up, but it didn’t come up in court this week.

The defense chose not to pursue a mental health defense. The Army had a number of doctors ready to testify that would have countered any diagnosis that the defense presented about traumatic brain injuries or PTSD, so the defense chose just to let Bales speak for himself.

Certainly, the behavior that Bales described would suggest PTSD. He said he was furious doing the dishes and sitting in traffic and he was ashamed to ask for help.

MARGARET WARNER: Adam Ashton of The News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, thank you.

ADAM ASHTON: Thanks for having me.