WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Army staff sergeant is expected to be formally charged on Friday with 17 counts of murder for a pre-dawn shooting rampage that killed men, women and children in Afghanistan, damaging U.S.-Afghan relations already frayed by 10 years of war.
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a 38-year-old decorated combat veteran, is accused of walking off his base in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan two weeks ago and opening fire at civilians in at least two different villages.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bales would be charged with 17 counts of murder. Initial reports from Afghanistan put the death toll at 16 people, including nine children and three women, with five other Afghans being wounded.
A defense official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the discrepancy between the reported 16 deaths and the 17 murder charges was not the result of a wounded person dying.
The official said the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan had not previously specified an official death toll in the incident and that evidence developed in the course of the investigation led to a decision to pursue 17 murder counts against Bales.
Navy Captain John Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, told a briefing on Friday he expected charges to be preferred against Bales “soon, perhaps as early as today.” He declined to discuss the details of the charges.
“The preferral of charges is the first step here. It is the notification to the accused of the charges that are being levied against him or her by the government,” he said. “It’s the first step in this process. I am not going to discuss here today the specifics of those charges.”
A defense official said details of the charges would likely be released on Friday once the formal charging documents had been authenticated and signed by both the U.S. military convening authority in Afghanistan as well as Bales and his attorney.
Bales’ attorney, John Henry Browne, suggested Friday he might use the soldier’s mental state as a defense.
“My first reaction to all of this is, prove it ... This is going to be a very difficult case for the government to prove in my opinion. There is no CSI (crime scene investigation) stuff. There’s no DNA. There’s no fingerprints,” Browne told CBS’ “This Morning” program.
But he said, ”The mental state eventually will be definitely an issue.
Bales is currently being held at the Leavenworth military prison in Kansas but is assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
Kirby said the convening authority - the military officer responsible for jurisdiction in the case - would shift to Joint Base Lewis-McChord once charges have been formally preferred against Bales.
A U.S. official said on Thursday that legal proceedings for Bales would likely take place at Lewis-McChord.
Once the preferral of charges takes place, the next step in the judicial proceeding would be an Article 32 hearing, which is similar to a preliminary hearing in a civilian court.
The Article 32 hearing usually gives the accused a fairly detailed overview of the case against him, including testimony and evidence that will be presented, officials say.
Editing by Vicki Allen