Sgt. Robert Bales case: Military’s investigative, trial process explained

This post has been corrected, as indicated below

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is expected to be charged Friday with 17 counts of murder in connection with a March 11 overnight rampage in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan. Here is a primer on the military’s investigative process and the charges.

Q: Who investigated Bales?

A: Each branch of the service has its own internal “police force,” and for the Army it is the Criminal Investigation Command. These Army detectives, who generally serve with the accused soldier’s same command, began interviewing witnesses, collecting evidence and preparing a report about the shootings for Army prosecutors for the possible filing of charges that could lead to his military court-martial.

Q: Where is Bales being held?

A: Bales was transferred from Afghanistan to the Army’s maximum security prison and lockup at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. This facility is considered so secure that it holds ex-service members serving lengthy or life sentences, and also is the site of the military’s death row.

Q: Who defends the accused?

A: The defendant is given military defense lawyers, as well as civilian counsel. In the Bales case, because the accusations are grave and the case likely will be considered complex, he already has been given three military lawyers and two civilian attorneys.

Q: How does the military process work?

A: Much like in civilian courts, pretrial hearings are scheduled, evidence is shared, more witnesses are interviewed, and both sides prepare for what is called an “Article 32 Hearing.” This is similar to a preliminary hearing in a civilian case. At this session, an investigating officer presides as Army prosecutors introduce evidence and present witnesses to support the charges. The defense is allowed to cross-examine the witnesses and challenge the evidence. The Article 32 Hearing is not expected to be held in the Bales case for at least several months.

Q: Then?

A: The investigating officer makes a recommendation to the soldier’s commanding general on whether the accused should face a military court-martial. The general may accept the recommendation or reject it. If the general accepts it, then after another round of pretrial hearings, a court-martial, or military trial, is convened.

Q: What happens at the court-martial?

A: This is similar to a civilian trial. Witnesses and evidence are presented again. Typically , the same judge presides, and typically there is a military jury made up of the soldier’s colleagues or superiors from his home base. The jury then decides on guilt or innocence, and issues a sentence.

Q: Are there appeals?

A: The appeals first go to the commanding general, and then to a series of military courts of appeals and, eventually, can reach the president for clemency in his role as commander-in-chief. Once the military avenues are exhausted, the defendant may then appeal his case in the federal civilian court system.

For the record: An earlier version of this post said a military judge presides over an “Article 32 Hearing,” which is similar to a preliminary hearing in civilian courts. An investigating officer presides over the Article 32 Hearing.


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