By Laura L. Myers
TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier charged with capital murder in the slayings of 16 civilians near his military post in Afghanistan was diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury prior to the killings, his lawyer said on Thursday.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who is accused of gunning down the villagers, mostly women and children, in cold blood during two rampages through their family compounds in Kandahar province last March.
The disclosure that Bales was diagnosed with PTSD followed a hearing in which defense lawyers told a military judge they were preparing a possible "mental health defense" for Bales, who appeared in court wearing a green military dress uniform.
The judge, Colonel Jeffery Nance, said such a defense would require a formal psychiatric evaluation and he would order a "sanity board" of independent doctors to review Bales' mental condition.
During Thursday's 90-minute hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, where Bales is being held in detention, defense lawyers also deferred entering a plea on behalf of their client and waived a formal reading of the charges.
Asked by the judge whether he understood that the case against him could result in the death penalty, Bales, 39, an Army staff sergeant, replied, "Sir, yes sir."
Under the military justice system, a plea is commonly postponed at this stage to preserve legal options for the defense, whose ability to make additional motions is severely restricted once a plea is entered, experts say.
Civilian defense lawyer John Henry Browne told the judge, Colonel Jeffery Nance, that he would need at least a year and a half to prepare for Bales' defense.
BRAIN INJURY DIAGNOSIS FOLLOWED IED BLAST IN IRAQ
Prosecutors say Bales, a father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, acted alone and with "chilling premeditation" when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his base twice, returning in the middle of his rampage to tell a fellow soldier: "I just shot up some people."
The shootings, which occurred over a five-hour period in March, marked one of the deadliest incidents the military has blamed on a rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War, and strained U.S.-Afghan relations.
Browne told reporters he doubted Bales would get a fair trial unless "we slow this thing down."
He said two Afghans that prosecutors had listed as potential witnesses in the case turned out to be insurgents who were killed by U.S.-led forces, a claim that could not be immediately corroborated with U.S. military officials. Continued...