Six Afghan civilians who are expected to testify at the court-martial of Kandahar massacre suspect Staff Sgt. Robert Bales traveled to Joint Base Lewis-McChord last week. They made the trip to prepare for the trial of the veteran Stryker brigade soldier accused of killing 16 civilians, mostly women and children.
Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield, a spokesman for Lewis-McChord’s I Corps, confirmed that the witnesses visited the base and then returned to Afghanistan.
The witnesses stayed at accommodations on the base and met with attorneys from the Army prosecution team and Bales’ lawyers. Dangerfield said the discussions were not depositions. They were intended to help the Afghans become familiar with the court-martial process they will experience if Bales’ trial is held in September as scheduled.
The military rarely brings foreign witnesses to U.S. soil to testify in courts-martial. Afghan witnesses, for instance, did not testify at any of the 2010-11 courts-martial for Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers accused of murdering three civilians in Kandahar province. Four U.S. soldiers were convicted in connection with those killings.
Iraqis, likewise, did not testify in U.S. courtrooms during the prosecution of Marines who were accused of killing civilians in the town of Haditha in 2005.
Instead, defense attorneys traveled to Iraq for depositions, said Colby Vokey, a former Marine lawyer who represented the Marine squad leader accused of killing civilians in Haditha.
“That’s very unusual that they will bring a witness from Afghanistan,” said Vokey, who also defended service members accused of war crimes in Afghanistan as a private attorney.
Afghan witnesses testified via video link in November at a pretrial hearing for Bales, also held at Lewis-McChord.
That link satisfied the Army’s requirements for Bales’ so-called Article 32 hearing, in which the Army presents its evidence against a defendant and an investigating officer recommends whether a criminal case should go forward.
However, witnesses would not be able to testify remotely if Bales’ case proceeds to a full court-martial as planned. The Sixth Amendment protects Bales’ right to have his accusers testify against him in court.
No such testimony happened in the “kill team” and Haditha trials because foreign civilian witnesses were not called at that stage in the proceedings.
Bales’ defense attorneys in November argued that the witnesses should have been brought to the base for the Article 32 hearing. Lead defense attorney John Henry Browne has traveled to Kandahar to interview witnesses in person.
Bales, 39, is a married father of two and former resident of Lake Tapps who was on his fourth combat deployment at the time of the killings. He allegedly left his combat outpost twice in the early hours of March 11, 2012, to kill civilians in two Kandahar province villages. He faces the death penalty if he’s convicted of murder.