The U.S. Army said Wednesday it will seek the death penalty against the soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in a predawn rampage in March, a decision his lawyer called "totally irresponsible."
FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. - The lawyer for the Army staff sergeant accused of slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians in a nighttime shooting rampage met his client for the first time Monday and said the solider has a sketchy memory of the massacre.
Lawyer John Henry Browne said Robert Bales remembers some details from before and after the killings, but very little during the time the military believes on a killing spree through two Afghan villages.
"He has some memory of some things that happened that night. He has some memories of before the incident and he has some memories of after the incident. In between, very little," Browne told The Associated Press by telephone from Fort Leavenworth, where Bales is being held.
Pressed on whether Bales can remember anything at all about the shooting, Browne said, "I haven't gotten that far with him yet."
Bales, 38, has not been charged yet in the March 11 shootings, though charges could come this week. The killings sparked protests in Afghanistan, endangered relations between the two countries and threatened to upend American policy over the decade-old war.
Earlier Monday, Browne met with his client behind bars for the first time to begin building a defense and said the soldier gave a powerfully moving account of what it is like to be on the ground in Afghanistan.
Browne said he and Bales, who is being held in an isolated cell at the military prison, met for more than three hours in the morning at Fort Leavenworth. Browne, co-counsel Emma Scanlan and Bales were expected to talk again in the afternoon.
"What's going on on the ground in Afghanistan, you read about it. I read about it. But it's totally different when you hear about it from somebody who's been there," Browne told The Associated Press by telephone during a lunch break. "It's just really emotional."
Browne, a Seattle attorney who defended serial killer Ted Bundy and a thief known as the "Barefoot Bandit," has said he has handled three or four military cases. The defense team includes a military defense lawyer, Maj. Thomas Hurley.
At their meeting, Browne said Bales clarified a story, provided initially by the soldier's family, about the timing of a roadside bomb that blew off the leg of one of Bales' friends. It was two days before the shooting, not one, and Bales didn't see the explosion, just the aftermath, Browne said.
The details of the blast could not be immediately confirmed.
Military officials have said that Bales, after drinking on a southern Afghanistan base, crept away to two villages overnight, shooting his victims and setting many of them on fire. Nine of the dead were children and 11 belonged to one family.
Bales arrived at Fort Leavenworth last Friday and is being held in the same prison as other prominent defendants. Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is charged with leaking classified documents to the WikiLeaks website, has been held there on occasion as he awaited trial.
Bales is "already being integrated into the normal pretrial confinement routine," post spokeswoman Rebecca Steed said.
That includes recreation, meals and cleaning the area where he is living. Steed said once his meetings with his attorneys are complete later in the week, Bales will resume the normal integration process.
Bales' wife, Karilyn, offered her condolences to the victims' families Monday and said she wants to know what happened. She said her family and her in-laws are profoundly sad. She said what they've read and seen in news reports is "completely out of character of the man I know and admire."
"My family including my and Bob's extended families are all profoundly sad. We extend our condolences to all the people of the Panjawai District, our hearts go out too all of them, especially to the parents, brothers, sisters and grandparents of the children who perished," Karilyn Bales said in a statement.
Court records and interviews show that Bales had commendations for good conduct after four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He enlisted in the military after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He also faced a number of troubles in recent years: A Florida investment job went sour, his Seattle-area home was condemned as he struggled to make payments on another, and he failed to get a recent promotion.
Legal troubles included charges that he assaulted a girlfriend and, in a hit-and-run accident, ran bleeding in military clothes into the woods, according to court records. He told police he fell asleep at the wheel and paid a fine to get the charges dismissed.
In March 1998, Bales was given a $65 citation for possessing alcohol at Daytona Beach, Fla. He did not pay the fine nor did he defend himself in court. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but it later expired.
If the case goes to court, the trial will be held in the U.S., said a legal expert with the U.S. military familiar with the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the case.
That expert said charges were still being decided and that the location for any trial had
not yet been determined. If the suspect is brought to trial, it is possible that Afghan witnesses and victims would be flown to the U.S. to participate, he said.
After their investigation, military attorneys could draft charges and present them to a commander, who then makes a judgment on whether there is probable cause to believe that an offense was committed and that the accused committed it.
That commander then submits the charges to a convening authority, who typically is the commander of the brigade to which the accused is assigned but could be of higher rank.
Associated Press writers Manuel Valdes in Seattle and Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report. Johnson reported from Seattle.