JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — The U.S. soldier who massacred 16 Afghan civilians last year in one of the worst atrocities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was sentenced Friday to life in prison with no chance of parole — the most severe sentence possible, but one that left surviving victims and relatives of the dead deeply unsatisfied.
“We wanted this murderer to be executed,” said Hajji Mohammad Wazir, who lost 11 family members in the attack by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. “We were brought all the way from Afghanistan to see if justice would be served. Not our way — justice was served the American way.”
Bales, 40, pleaded guilty in June in a deal to avoid the death penalty for his March 11, 2012, raids near his remote outpost in Kandahar province, when he stalked through mud-walled compounds and shot 22 people — 17 of them women and children. Some screamed for mercy, while others didn’t even have a chance to get out of bed.
The only possible sentences were life in prison without parole, or life with the possibility of release after 20 years. The soldier showed no emotion as the six jurors chose the former after deliberating for less than two hours.
His mother, sitting in the front row of the court, bowed her head, rocked in her seat and wept.
An interpreter flashed a thumbs-up sign to a row of Afghan villagers who were either wounded or had lost family members in the attacks.
The villagers, who traveled nearly 7,000 miles to testify against Bales, spoke with reporters through an interpreter and asked what it would be like for someone to break into American homes and slaughter their families. A boy displayed a scar from a bullet wound to his leg.
Bales never offered an explanation for why he armed himself with a 9mm pistol and an M4 rifle and left his post on the killing mission, but he apologized on the witness stand Thursday and described the slaughter as an “act of cowardice, behind a mask of fear, bulls and bravado.”
The villagers said they hadn’t read or listened to the apology. One villager, Mullah Baran, called it a “fraud.”
Prosecutors described Bales as a “man of no moral compass.”
“In just a few short hours, Sgt. Bales wiped out generations,” Lt. Col. Jay Morse told the jury in his closing argument. “Sgt. Bales dares to ask you for mercy when he has shown none.”
A commanding general overseeing the court-martial has the option of reducing the sentence to life with the possibility of parole.
Defense attorney Emma Scanlan argued for the lighter sentence, begging jurors to consider her client’s prior life and years of good military service and suggested he snapped under the weight of his fourth combat deployment.
Prosecutors, laying out the case for a life term, argued that Bales’s own “stomach-churning” words demonstrated that he knew exactly what he was doing.
“My count is 20,” Bales told another soldier when he returned to the base.
Morse also played a surveillance video of Bales returning to the base after the killings, marching with “the methodical, confident gait of a man who’s accomplished his mission.”
Bales, an Ohio native who lived in Lake Tapps, Wash., was under personal, financial and professional stress at the time. He had stopped paying the mortgage on one of his houses, was concerned about his wife’s spending and hadn’t received a promotion he wanted.
The closing arguments came a day after Bales apologized, saying he’d bring back the victims “in a heartbeat,” if he could.