Sgt. Bales' State Of Mind Is Key To His Defense In War Crime Case

Nov 14, 2012

In eight days of hearings, Army prosecutors outlined in grisly detail the case against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. He’s the Washington soldier charged with killing and wounding 23 Afghan civilians in a rampage this past March. Bales’ pretrial hearing concluded Tuesday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Now the Army will decide whether the evidence supports a full court martial and, if so, whether the death penalty is appropriate in this case.

Robert Bales wife Karilyn, middle, listens as her sister reads a family statement to reporters at the conclusion of the pretrial hearing.
Credit Photo Credit: Austin Jenkins

Prosecutors say of the 16 killed, nine were children. Five of them under age five. By video feed from Afghanistan some of the surviving victims testified about the horrors of that early morning in March when a gunman entered their walled compound and opened fire. Prosecutors say that man was Sgt. Robert Bales, a married father of two on his fourth combat deployment. Outside court, Bales’ family painted a very different picture of the man they call Rob.

Stephanie Tandberg: “We know Bob as a bright, courageous and honorable soldier, son, husband …”

Stephanie Tandberg is Bales’ sister-in-law. As she spoke in the drizzle at Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Bales’ wife Kari stood silently at her side. Tandberg told reporters the family shares the nation’s despair over the massacre, but questioned the evidence against Bales.

Tandberg: “Much of the testimony was painful, even heartbreaking, but we are not convinced the government has shown us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what happened that night.”

Bales was assigned to a special forces outpost in Kandahar province in Southern Afghanistan. On the night of the killings, prosecutors say he drank whiskey and soda with some fellow soldiers and watched a Denzel Washington movie about a man who goes on a killing spree to seek revenge. After everyone had gone to bed, prosecutors say Bales left on foot to commit his “heinous” crime in two nearby villages. His defense team is raising a number of issues including whether Bales acted alone. But at the heart of the defense is a single question: what was Bales’ state of mind? His attorneys have suggested Bales suffered from PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. It emerged in court that Bales was also taking steroids.

His attorney Emma Scanlan.

Scanlan: “We need to know what it means when somebody is on steroids, alcohol and sleeping aides. What does that mean about his state of mind?”

Scanlan says the defense team has just now received toxicology results that still need to be analyzed. Eugene Fidell teaches military justice at Yale Law School. Speaking via Skype, he says that avenue of defense could be risky.

Fidell: “Perhaps there’s a basis for some kind of extenuating or mitigating evidence that would be an effort to negate premeditation, for example, intention. But voluntary intoxication: military law is not friendly to that kind of defense.”

In court, prosecutors used Bales’ own words to try to demonstrate he was aware of his actions and able to express guilt shortly after the killings.

Bales: “I thought I was doing the right thing.”

Bales: “It’s bad, really bad.”

But defense lawyer Scanlan notes Bales has yet to go through the army’s sanity board process.

Scanlan: “We don’t know so many things about this case that we ask that everybody keep an open mind as we go forward, as we investigate what is actually going on here.”

In closing arguments, Scanlan tried to convince the investigating officer to take the death penalty off the table. On that point the prosecution said the “sheer brutality” of the crimes justifies that if Bales is ultimately convicted of premeditated murder he should face the possibility of execution.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio