JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — An Army staff sergeant accused of massacring 16 civilians in southern Afghanistan in the spring showed no remorse as he was taken into custody, one of his comrades testified Monday during the soldier’s first day in court.
“I thought I was doing the right thing,” Staff. Sgt. Robert Bales told Cpl. David Godwin, the latter testified. Describing the sergeant’s demeanor that morning, Godwin said Bales looked like “he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.”
The opening of Bales’s Article 32 hearing — the military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding — provided new details about the March 11 massacre, including an alleged attempt by Bales to destroy evidence by asking Godwin to bleach his blood-stained pants.
Lt. Col. Joseph Morse, the lead prosecutor, said Bales was “deliberate and methodical” that day, despite having been drinking scotch the previous night. But he offered no substantive motive for the rampage, one of the most barbaric crimes attributed to U.S. troops in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nine of the victims were children.
Morse said during his opening statement that Bales had previously visited one of the two compounds where civilians were killed, suggesting the sergeant knew the dwelling was home to women and children.
The defense opted not to give an opening statement before the judge, Army Col. Lee Deneke, who will determine at the end of the two-week hearing whether the government has enough evidence for a court-martial. Bales could get the death penalty if convicted. There are five soldiers on death row, but no American service member has been executed since 1961.
In cross-examining witnesses, defense attorney Emma Scanlan drew attention to a spate of incidents in the weeks prior to the massacre during which Bales was uncharacteristically irritable. That raised the possibility that the defense may argue that military leaders missed warning signs about the sergeant’s mental state.
Bales, 39, was charged with 16 counts of first-degree murder after military investigators implicated him in the shootings of civilians in two villages adjacent to a NATO base in the impoverished Panjwai district of Kandahar province.
Villagers who have agreed to provide testimony over a video link-up from Afghanistan are expected to give the most detailed public account to date of what happened during the pre-dawn hours after Bales reportedly left his base alone and broke into their homes.
“We are willing to collaborate with the U.S. as witnesses,” Mullah Baran, the brother of one of the victims, Mohamed Daoud, said in a phone interview. “If the trial is in the U.S., we will go by plane. If it is in Kandahar city, we will go by car. And if it is in Panjwai, we will attend on foot.”
The soldiers who testified on Monday provided new details about the shooting and life on the small base during the days before it. Comrades said Bales was angry his unit had not done more to find the culprits of a bombing that blew off the left leg of a Navy explosives expert during a patrol on March 5.
“He expressed quite a bit of concern over our actions after the incident,” Sgt. 1st Class Clayton Blackshear testified, recalling a conversation he had the evening of March 10 when Bales walked into his room.
He also grumbled about his family life, saying he had “bad kids” and an “ugly wife.” Blackshear said he sought to keep the conversation short because he was eager to get to bed.
Later that night, after performing guard duty on the base, Bales, Godwin and a third soldier, Sgt. Jason McLaughlin, drank Jack Daniels whiskey with Diet Coke out of a protein shake bottle while watching the movie “Man on Fire.” The 2004 film stars Denzel Washington as a former CIA operative who starts killing a series of people involved in the abduction of a 9-year-old girl he was hired to protect.
Bales was agitated about whether he was going to be promoted soon, feeling the Army did not value him enough, McLaughlin testified.
“He felt strongly he deserved to be promoted for what he had done in his military career,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin, who had guard duty at 3 a.m., set his alarm for 2:50 a.m. and went to bed. He was awoken before the alarm went off by an agitated Bales, who barged into his room and flicked on the light.
“He said he had been to Alkozai and shot up some people,” McLaughlin recalled, referring to one of the villages where civilians were slain. McLaughlin was incredulous, responding: “No, you didn’t, Bob.” But Bales was insistent, saying he had shot “military-aged men” and encouraging McLaughlin to smell his weapon.
Bales then said he was heading to another village and would be back at 5 a.m. Before stepping out, McLaughlin testified, Bales made a request: “Take care of my kids.” McLaughlin said he fell asleep again, dismissing the exchange as bizarre but innocuous.
Shortly after that, reports about shots fired nearby put the base on alert. They were followed by an account by an Afghan guard who had seen an American soldier walk out of the base.
After determining that Bales was missing, McLaughlin and Godwin were dispatched to the main entrance of the base, where they began yelling his name. Soon, they spotted a figure wearing a dark cape jogging toward the entrance, the two testified. When Bales reached them, he put his weapon on the ground.
“Mac, did you rat me out?” Bales asked McLaughlin, the soldier testified. Later that night, as soldiers were preparing to move Bales to a larger base, the sergeant boasted to McLaughlin, telling him how many people he thought he had killed.
“My count is 22,” Bales said, according to McLaughlin.
Bales’s wife, Kari, sat in the front row of the small wood-paneled courtroom, which has two benches. She wore a small yellow pin in the shape of the yellow ribbon — a gesture of support for U.S. troops.
A spokesman for the Bales family said Kari is hopeful there won’t be a rush to judgment in her husband’s case.
“Kari wants one thing above all for the man she loves: a fair trial without prejudgements,” Seattle lawyer Lance S. Rosen, who represents the family, said in a statement issued Sunday night. “It is a basic right for every American, but especially for our soldiers we send into harm’s way to defend America and all the rights Americans cherish.”
Bales said little during the hearing, other than acknowledging he understood the nature of the proceedings and was happy with his lawyers. He stared intently at the prosecutor as he delivered an opening statement and did not appear to react to the damaging testimony his comrades provided.
During a break, Bales, who was not handcuffed, leaned over a wooden railing separating the gallery and clasped his wife’s hands in his.
“You okay?” he whispered.
She nodded as they let go.
Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.