US soldier’s lawyers question Afghan killings account
Lawyers for the US soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers got their first chance to defend him in court on Tuesday, calling into question prosecutors’ version of events.
Defence attorneys presented their first witnesses on the second day of a pre-trial hearing for Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, to determine whether he should face a full court-martial.
The prosecution called more witnesses who testified that Bales appeared calm when detained in the early hours of March 11 this year, after allegedly going on a killing spree in two nearby villages.
Bales faces 16 counts of murder, six of attempted murder, seven of assault, two of using drugs and one of drinking alcohol. Seventeen of the 22 victims were women or children and almost all were shot in the head.
The second day of the two-week hearing heard how angry locals mounted a near-riot outside the US army base in the hours after the killings in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan.
Bales, 39, mostly appeared passive during the six to eight hours he was held before being helicoptered out of the base, although he did break his own laptop as his personal belongings were gathered together.
“You gotta be kidding me,” Bales said upon returning to the base in the early hours of March 11 to find colleagues waiting to detain him, according to veteran officer Lance Allard, testifying at the military court hearing.
When Bales was asked what he’d been doing, Allard reported that he replied: “I’m not going to answer that – because I love you guys.”
Allard described a frenzied scene of between 2,000 and 3,000 Afghan citizens crowding the gates of the base after the full scale of the carnage came to light. He credited the Afghan National Army with defending the camp.
Sergeant First Class Derek King, who helped guard Bales until his departure later that day, said he was mostly quiet, but at one point volunteered: “I love you guys, please don’t think less of me.”
“Do you remember that motherfucker with the PKM? You don’t need to worry about that guy anymore,” he added, referring to a Russian-made machine gun.
Sergeant Ross O’Rourke, who also guarded Bales, said the soldier had indicated he did not want to take his laptop with him.
A guard placed the computer on a bed and Bales then suddenly reached over and grabbed it, cracking the screen back on itself, O’Rourke said.
Military medic Sergeant First Class James Stillwell examined Bales for injuries and found none. When he asked the sergeant where all the blood on his uniform had come from, Bales simply shrugged his shoulders.
Defence lawyers sought to cast doubt on the prosecution case.
They called two witnesses, Private First Class Derek Guinn and Specialist James Alexander, who said an Afghan interpreter told him that Afghan National Army forces had seen two people leaving the base but only one returning.
The defence called into question statements by Corporal David Godwin, who testified for the prosecution on Monday saying he had tried to communicate with Bales after his arrest about hiding evidence.
Corporal David Wofford said Godwin was drunk on the night in question. Alexander said he smelled alcohol on Godwin’s breath after Godwin awoke him at 3.17am.
Wofford also noted that Godwin looked like he had recently showered and was clean-shaven, which would have been rare because soldiers at the base did not often shave.
Wofford speculated that perhaps this was because he had gotten blood on his beard.
On Monday, prosecutors set out their case, saying Bales had been drinking whisky with colleagues before the massacre and watching the movie Man on Fire, starring Denzel Washington as an ex-assassin on a revenge mission.
Witnesses and relatives of victims are expected to testify via videolink from Afghanistan next week, when the US-based hearings will be held in the evening, to allow Afghan testimony during daylight hours.
Should the Article 32 hearing result in a court-martial and Bales be found guilty, he could face the death penalty.