Afghan Massacre Case Goes to Court

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly butchered Afghan villagers.

In this detail of a courtroom sketch, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, center, is shown Nov. 5, 2012, during a preliminary hearing in a military courtroom.

In this courtroom sketch, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, center, is shown Nov. 5, 2012, during a preliminary hearing.

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The Army soldier charged with brutally killing 16 Afghans, including households of women and infants while they slept, faces a military court starting Monday that will decide if his case should proceed to a court-martial.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is accused of slipping away from his remote base in southern Afghanistan in the pre-dawn hours of March 11. He allegedly entered the nearby villages of Balandi and Alkozai only a few hundred meters away, and trained his M-4 rifle with a grenade launcher on innocent locals.

The massacre, considered one of the worst in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, left 16 dead, including 9 children and 11 others from the same family. Military prosecutor Lt. Col. Joseph Morse said at the hearing on Monday that Bales wounded six others and set at least one person on fire, reports Patch.com in Lakewood, Wash. 

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"My count is 20," Bales reportedly told a fellow soldier hours after he returned to base, according to Morse.

After the reported spree, security camera footage displayed in court on Monday shows Bales returning to base, according to Patch. He reportedly greeted the Afghan guard in a local dialect while his clothes were covered in blood. He left the base and returned again that morning. Upon returning for a second time, he dropped his weapon and was apprehended.

The preliminary hearing on Joint Base Lewis-McChord is scheduled to run as long as two weeks, the Associated Press reports, to allow for video testimony from any of the Afghan witnesses.

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The Los Angeles Times reports the case is particularly hard to prosecute, due to the customs of the local residents and the difficulty of collecting evidence in an active warzone. Afghan men are reluctant to allow female witnesses to testify and the bodies of the victims were burnt in accordance with Islamic tradition.

Recounts by the few survivors include vague information about the killer's description, says the Times.

The married father of two had previously been a stock broker whose career imploded. He joined the Army before paying any of the $1.5 million an arbitrator ordered he pay in a fraudulent judgement against him, according to the AP.

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He was serving his fourth combat tour in Iraq when the massacre took place.

One of his lawyers, Emma Scanlan, declined to tell reporters what testimony the defense could use to support a mental-health defense, the AP reports. Some witnesses claim there may have been more than one killer.

No motives have emerged, says the AP, and Bales wife Karilyn has consistently said he could not have carried out the crimes for which he is accused. He did, however, complain to her of financial difficulties a year before the killings, and expressed disappointment for being passed over for a promotion.

A roadside bomb blew the leg off a friend of Bales days before the attack, according to the Times, prompting American soldiers to angrily question locals.

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Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at pshinkman@usnews.com.