For seven months, Joint Base Lewis-McChord Staff Sgt. Robert Bales sat in confinement while the military stayed all but silent about its case against the four-tour combat veteran accused of murdering 16 Afghan civilians in a nighttime rampage.
That silence is about to end as the Army on Monday opens its first public hearing in a courtroom drama that could lead to a death penalty court-martial for Bales, a father of two and a former Lake Tapps resident.
The hearing will be the first opportunity for Bales’ friends and family to learn what happened the night of March 11. The Stryker soldier allegedly twice slipped out of his combat outpost to kill nine children and seven adults in two villages.
The 39-year-old soldier had a reputation as a solid noncommissioned officer during a military career spent entirely at Lewis-McChord. He served with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division on all three of its tours to Iraq and the start of its one trip to Afghanistan.
“Nobody knows what’s going to come up,” said Elmer Clark, who has helped the Bales family as president of Tacoma’s VFW chapter, to which Bales belonged. “We still support the family.”
Bales’ alleged crimes upended NATO’s war plan in southern Afghanistan, halted combat operations for several days and raised concerns at home about the well-being of the military 11 years into an era of continual ground combat by an all-volunteer Army.
Military authorities whisked him out of Afghanistan shortly after the March killings and placed him in jail at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He arrived at Lewis-McChord in October.
Bales’ family spokesman said the soldier is better off now that he’s back in the Northwest. His wife, Karilyn, has been able to visit multiple times at Lewis-McChord’s Regional Confinement Center.
“She’s very pleased that he’s close to her and the kids by being at the base and that they can visit more easily and frequently,” said family spokesman Lance Rosen, a Seattle attorney.
Now the family wants to see the staff sergeant get a fair shake in court.
“He’s an American citizen. He’s a soldier. He deserves a fair trial,” Rosen said.
Bales’ case begins this week with a pretrial hearing in which the Army will present all its evidence. Bales’ defense attorney can test it, and an Army judicial officer recommends whether the case should advance to a full court-martial.
Veteran military attorneys say this phase of the trial is an opportunity for the defense to draw out inconsistencies among witnesses. Prosecutors, by contrast, want to protect Army evidence and reveal as little as they can about their strategy for a trial.
“This probably is the single best thing about the military justice system,” said Colby Vokey, a retired Marines prosecutor and defense attorney who now represents military clients as a civilian. “First and foremost, you are committing people on the record in sworn testimony to their version of the events.”
The hearing will unfold in the spotlight of the national media, and it will take place with a rare group of witnesses: Afghan civilians testifying from a military base in a combat zone.
John Henry Browne, Bales’ lead defense attorney, is traveling to Kandahar to cross-examine those witnesses. The Seattle attorney said he does not know who the Army is calling to testify. He said the Army took the initiative to get the Afghan witnesses in court. Browne does not have the authority to call his own witnesses during this pretrial phase.
Experienced military defense attorneys say it’s unusual for the Army to provide foreign civilian witnesses at an American judicial hearing. No Afghans testified in the last major war-crimes case at Lewis-McChord – the 2010-11 Stryker “kill team” cases – except for ones on the U.S. payroll as interpreters.
“This is a huge risk for the prosecution, and it seems clear the reason they’re doing that is to show the world and the Afghans the American system, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Dan Conway, a former Marine and experienced military defense attorney who represented one of the soldiers in the “kill team” cases.Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646