UPDATE, 11:15 A.M.: Staff Sgt. Robert Bales received a life sentence without the possibility parole on Friday for his single-handed massacre of 16 Afghan civilians in March 2012.
The six-member Army jury reached its decision about his sentence after less than two hours of discussion. A colonel read the verdict in a room crowded with Bales' family, friends and the survivors of the slaughter in Kandahar province's Panjwai district.
The Afghan villagers who are in town for the trial are expected to speak with the media this morning. They did not show much reaction in the courtroom, but a translator gave them a thumbs up to indicate the ruling.
Bales was led away immediately after the verdict. He did not have a moment to hug his wife or mother. His mother sobbed heavily after the decision was read, with her other sons consoling her in the courtroom.
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Bales can appeal for clemency. His sentence was the toughest one he could receive under the plea agreement he reached to avoid the death penalty.
EARLIER REPORT: Jurors this morning weighing Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ fate are considering opposing descriptions of the man who massacred 16 Afghan civilians in a nighttime rampage outside of his combat outpost last year.
In one, he’s the cold-blooded, remorseless killer who chillingly kept track of his body count and cursed at the soldiers who apprehended him after the slaughter.
“The truth is Sgt. Bales is a man of no moral compass with no one to blame and nothing to blame but himself,” said Army prosecutor Lt. Col. Jay Morse.
In the other, he’s a respected noncommissioned officer who did a world of good in his life before he “snapped” under the burdens of the gruesome scenes he witnessed on his four combat deployments with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade.
“I believe he was finally overwhelmed by witnessing the deaths and injuries of the soldiers he loved so much,” one of Bales’ former officers wrote in a letter his defense attorney read to jurors today. “It wears you down. While many of us are able to handle it a little better, for Sgt. Bales, each time it got worse and worse.”
Bales, 40, is going to receive a life sentence today. He confessed to the massacre in June and murder carries a mandatory minimum life sentence under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The only question is whether the six senior soldiers on his sentencing panel will grant him a chance at parole one day.
His courtroom was crowded today with friends, family members and former soldiers who have stuck with Bales despite knowing he singlehandedly slaughtered women and children on the night of March 11, 2012. His wife and mother were in the front row.
Defense attorney Emma Scanlan gestured to audience in her closing argument, contending that that Bales’ willingness to take responsibility for the murders in his plea agreement and the continued support of his peers showed that he deserved the chance to one day have a parole board consider whether he could walk freely again with his two young children.
“All these people stood up for him,” Scanlan said, naming a retired command sergeant major, a major, a master sergeant and sergeant first class who sat in court today. “How many of us could say that if we did something like this?”
Bales yesterday apologized for the slaughter, saying he could not explain the killings but that he grieved for the lives he ruined. Scanlan said the responsibility he has taken for the murders is one factor that should sway the jury to grant him a chance for parole.
“Sgt. Bales made the decision to say to you to the country of Afghanistan, to the soldiers in uniform, ‘I’m wrong. It’s me,’” she said.
Morse tore apart Bales’ appeal for mercy in a 45-minute argument that leaned heavily on a document that Bales endorsed as an accurate account of the killings.
The case's stipulation of fact details Bales’ personal frustrations with his family – he used to insult his wife and children to fellow soldiers – and his struggles with two underwater mortgages. Morse implied those challenges weighed on Bales more than his combat experiences.
The prosecutor showed jurors photographs of bloodied children Bales shot as Morse brutally described Bales’ shooting a 3-year-old girl at point blank range. Bales then killed the girl’s father.
Morse paced his argument to a surveillance video that captured Bales returning from the second village he attacked that night, the one where he murdered a dozen people and lit 10 bodies on fire.
The video shows Bales making what the Army calls tactical movements, looking for signs of buried mines and trying to go undetected when soldiers at his combat outpost fired illumination rounds to light up the sky. Morse said those movements demonstrated that Bales was in control of his actions and able to protect himself after the killings.
"This is the walk of a cold-blooder killer," Morse said as the video played. "This is the competent gait of a man who accomplished his mission, who did what he set out to do."
Morse then drew on Bales’ comments to the soldiers who apprehended him at the outpost, including remarks such as “My count is 20,” a disturbingly accurate estimate at the death toll. Bales said “Are you f****** kidding me?” when a sergeant detained him.
“The thing that got Sgt. Bales going is not the murder of women and children; it’s what he perceives as disloyalty.”
Morse flashed a screen showing the names of 48 children Bales murdered, maimed or orphaned in the massacre. Morse said Bales was undeserving of any mercy.
“Sgt. Bales dares to ask you to think of his children when he clearly did not,” Morse said. “He asks you for mercy when he gave none. He asks you to think of his service, which he dishonored. His hubris is grotesque when he asks you to think of his wife, whose name he has only defiled.”