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A military jury on Friday sentenced a U.S. soldier who massacred 16 Afghan civilians last year to life in prison without a chance of parole.
The decision came in the case of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 40, who pleaded guilty in June in a deal to avoid the death penalty.
Bales did not recount specifics of the horrors in court when he testified Thursday or offer an explanation for the violence, but he described the killings as an “act of cowardice, behind a mask of fear, bulls— and bravado.”
“I’m truly, truly sorry to those people whose families got taken away,” he said in a mostly steady voice during questions from one of his lawyers. “I can’t comprehend their loss. I think about it every time I look at my kids.”
Bales said he hoped his words would be translated for the nine villagers who traveled from Afghanistan to testify against him – none of whom elected to be in court to hear from him.
His statements were not made under oath, which prevented prosecutors from cross-examining him.
Bales, a father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., was serving his fourth combat deployment when he left his outpost at Camp Belambay, in Kandahar province, in the middle of the night to attack two villages.
The nine Afghans – some angry and at least one cursing Bales – testified over two days about their lives since the attacks. Haji Mohammad Wazir said he lost 11 relatives, including his mother, wife and six of his seven children.
“If someone loses one child, you can imagine how devastated their life would be,” Wazir said. “If anybody speaks to me about the incident … I feel the same, like it’s happening right now.”
Attorneys for Bales made much of Bales’ repeated deployments and suggested that post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury may have played a role in the killings. But they offered no testimony from psychiatrists or other doctors, saying they saw little point in making the case a battle of the experts.
Instead, they had Bales and some of his fellow soldiers testify about the difficulties they endured and the images that stuck with them after earlier tours in Iraq. They rested their defense after Bales finished speaking.
In his closing argument, the prosecutor, Lt. Col. Jay Morse, displayed photos of a young girl who was executed as she screamed and cried, as well as surveillance video of Bales returning to the base with what Morse called “the methodical, confident gait of a man who’s accomplished his mission.”
While questioning other witnesses, prosecutors noted Bales’ checkered past, including a fraud investigation and eventual $1.5 million judgment, a drunken-driving arrest in 2005, a driving under the influence crash in 2008, and lies on re-enlistment documents about his criminal history.
Bales’ lawyers did their best to paint a sympathetic picture of a patriotic man who was an ideal father and had been his senior class president and quarterback of the high school football team in Norwood, Ohio.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. In a moment, Robin will have a look at differences in parenting around the world, but first, two major military court decisions today. In Fort Hood, Texas, Major Nidal Hasan was convicted and could face the death penalty. He's the Army psychologist accused of a shooting rampage that left 13 dead. Meanwhile, another court decision just in from Washington state, a military judge - a military jury rather has sentenced Staff Sergeant Robert Bales to life in prison without a chance of parole.
Bales pled guilty in June to killing six Afghan civilians, most of them women and children. NPR's Martin Kaste is at the courthouse and joins us now. And, Martin, first, for people who didn't follow this case closely, remind us of the facts.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, this is the sentencing for Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. He's the U.S. soldier who has pleaded guilty to massacring 16 civilians in two small villages in Kandahar province last March of 2012. He pleaded guilty in June. This was the sentencing. What was at stake here was whether or nor his sentence would be a life with the possibility of parole or life without. And we've just found out the jury has decided it will be life without any possibility of parole.
HOBSON: And during the trial, a lot of emotional testimony. Afghan villagers were brought in to testify. How did people react to what we've found out today?
KASTE: Yeah. The Afghan witnesses were still here, and they were sitting there in the pews, in the spectators' area of the courtroom to watch this final verdict. They seemed satisfied. There were no real outward expressions, but their translator flashed them the thumbs-up sign so they could understand what just had happened. And on the other side of that same gallery, Robert Bales' family looked pretty ashen. His elderly mother was sitting in the front pew there, rocking and weeping, hiding her face, and it was a very, very difficult on that side of the room.
HOBSON: And he had said I'm truly, truly sorry that those people whose families got taken away, so some remorse from him.
KASTE: Remorse. But it certainly wasn't enough for this jury. No point here was his defense team trying to make the case that he was not responsible for what happened. And they kept emphasizing how sorry he was, how he wished he could take it back, how he can't even comprehend the pain of these Afghan families having lost so many children, especially. But really, what it came down to was whether or not there was a sense among this jury that anything short of a guaranteed life sentence would be justice.
HOBSON: NPR's Martin Kaste joining us from right outside the courthouse in Washington state. Martin, thanks.
KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.