Afghan witnesses visit base to prepare for Staff Sgt. Bales' court-martial

The (Tacoma) News TribuneMarch 13, 2013 

Six Afghan civilians who plan to testify at the court-martial for Kandahar massacre suspect Staff Sgt. Robert Bales traveled to Joint Base Lewis-McChord last week to prepare for the trial.

Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield, a spokesman for Lewis-McChord’s I Corps, confirmed that the witnesses visited the base last week and returned to Afghanistan.

They 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’ case takes place 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 to 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,” Vokey said. He also defended service members accused of war crimes in Afghanistan as a private attorney.

Afghan witnesses in November testified via video link to Kandahar province in a pretrial hearing for Bales, 39, at Lewis-McChord.

That link satisfied the Army’s requirements for Bales’ so-called Article 32 hearing, an event 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.

Bales’ defense attorneys in November argued that the witnesses should have been brought to Lewis-McChord for the Article 32 hearing. One of them, John Henry Browne, traveled to Kandahar to interview the witnesses in person.

Bales, formerly of Lake Tapps, 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.

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