Hearing for Army Sergeant Charged with 16 Counts of Murder

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — Starting Monday, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will hear details of the military prosecutors’ case against him regarding a deadly shooting spree in Afghanistan in March.

Sixteen civilian villagers died in the rampage, and six others were injured.

On the night of the shooting, Bales was seen leaving a small base in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province alone. He later returned and turned himself in to fellow soldiers. Bales allegedly told his roommate at the base that he’d been killing Afghan civilians, but his attorney, John Henry Browne, denies this.

Bales is charged with 16 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder and seven counts of assault. He’s also charged with illicit use of alcohol and steroids.

Browne said the steroid use will be a key factor in his client’s defense. “Steroid use is going to be an issue in this case, especially where Sgt. Bales got steroids and how he got steroids,” Browne told CNN last spring.

The hearing, called an Article 32 hearing, is expected to last two weeks. Article 32 is the section of the military code of justice that dictates how it works. It’s sort of a combination of a grand jury hearing and a preliminary hearing in a civilian criminal case. But there are significant differences.

For instance, there will be significant testimony from many of the potential witnesses in the case, and unlike in a grand jury case, Bales and his attorney will be there and able to cross-examine the witnesses against him or even present witnesses of their own.

This Article 32 hearing will be even more unusual in that the courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, where Bales is being held, will be linked by satellite to Afghanistan, where some of the witnesses will testify by teleconference.

On some days, the hearing in Washington state won’t even begin until dinner time, when the day is just beginning on the other side of the world in Afghanistan.

In one other difference from civilian court, the person who acts as the judge in the case will not make a decision about whether the case should go to trial in a court-martial. He or she will make a recommendation to the officer who ordered that the hearing be held. That person will decide which, if any, charges Bales will face at trial and also whether prosecutors will pursue the death penalty in the case.

Following Afghan tradition, the 16 victims were buried soon after the deaths, before any autopsy could be done. Some legal experts have told CNN that could present a difficulty for prosecutors. But there were photographs taken of the victims and survivors who saw it happen. Also, if any rounds were recovered from the scene and matched his weapon, they could be used as evidence against Bales.

The attack triggered protests in Afghanistan and Pakistan and condemnation from Afghan President Karzai and President Barack Obama. The Taliban threatened revenge.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, a Taliban commander said, “We don’t think that one American soldier was involved in the attack. The foreigners and the puppet regime are blind to the truth of what happened there. But if this was the act of one soldier we want this soldier to be prosecuted in Afghanistan and according to Islamic law.”

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