Afghan slaying: Defense depends on Sgt. Bales’ mental health

John Henry Browne, a civilian attorney for U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, talks to reporters after Bales' arraignment at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington state.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, accused of killing 16 civilians in Afghanistan, will undergo a sanity review before a mental health defense can be presented, a military judge decided Thursday.

Col. Jeffery Nance ordered the review, a step in the ongoing proceedings against Bales, who faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and other charges in connection with a nighttime attack on two villages in Afghanistan last March.

Bales deferred entering a plea at Thursday’s arraignment, held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle.


A veteran of three tours in Iraq, Bales, 39, is accused of leaving his base in southern Afghanistan on March 11 and massacring civilians, mainly women and children, and burning some of the bodies. During a pretrial hearing in November, witnesses testified that Bales had been angered by a bomb blast near his outpost that severed a fellow soldier’s leg.

Bales’ mental state and whether that influenced his actions is one of the key issues in the case. The Army is seeking the death penalty and has been resisting any form of a mental health defense. Lawyers for Bales have argued that the soldier is not guilty and that his actions were influenced by his mental state.

Bales had post-traumatic stress disorder, his lawyer John Henry Browne said in a telephone interview after the hearing. “They knew he had a concussive head injury. They sent him to the worst part of Afghanistan on his fourth tour, and the Special Forces pumped him full of steroids and gave him alcohol and Valium. I think the government should take some responsibility for this rather than just try to kill him.”

An evaluation by an official sanity board, which is composed of doctors, is the first step in determining whether a defendant is competent to stand trial.

Browne said the defense had refused to let Bales take part in the sanity board because the Army would not let him have a lawyer present, would not record the examination and would not appoint to the board a neuropsychologist expert in traumatic brain injuries.

“These are not independent doctors; they’re doctors who work for the Army, and the Army is trying to kill my client,” Browne said by telephone.


The judge did not say in court when the evaluations would take place. Browne said the details would be negotiated between the parties.


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