JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. - The preliminary hearing against a soldier accused of massacring 16 Afghan villagers during a pre-dawn rampage in March has concluded, and his family said afterward they mourn with the victims but continue to support Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a "courageous and honorable" man.
Closing arguments from Army prosecutors and Bales' attorney were made Tuesday. In the coming weeks, investigating officer Col. Lee Deneke will decide whether to recommend court-martial, with the ultimate decision to be made by the three-star general at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Robert Brown.
Bales, a 39-year-old father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., could face the death penalty. If a court-martial takes place, it will be held at the Washington state base south of Seattle.
Prosecutors say Bales slipped away from his base in Afghanistan to attack two villages in Kandahar province, killing 16 civilians, including nine children. The slayings drew such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before American investigators could reach the crime scenes.
Three sessions of nighttime testimony in Bales' preliminary Article 32 hearing, scheduled to accommodate witnesses participating by video link from Afghanistan, concluded late Sunday.
The witnesses included a 7-year-old girl, who described how she hid behind her father when a gunman came to their village that night, how the stranger fired, and how her father died, cursing in pain and anger.
Bales' wife, Kari, and her sister, Stephanie Tandberg, met with reporters briefly after the hearings concluded. Tandberg read a statement, saying "we all grieve deeply for the Afghani families who lost their loved ones on March 11, but we must all not rush to judgment."
Last week, the lead prosecutor, Lt. Col. Jay Morse, said on the night of the killings Bales watched a movie about a former CIA agent on a revenge killing spree, with two fellow soldiers, while drinking contraband whiskey. Morse said Bales first attacked one village, Alkozai, returned to the base at Camp Belambay, then headed out again to attack a second village, Najiban. Bales returned to the base covered in blood, Morse said, and his incriminating statements indicate he was "deliberate and methodical."
Bales has not entered a plea and did not testify at the hearing. His attorneys have not discussed the evidence, but say he has post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered a concussive head injury while serving in Iraq.
In the family statement, Tandberg said: "We all want very much to know how, why, and what happened ... Much of the testimony was painful, even heartbreaking, but we are not convinced the government has shown us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about what happened that night ... We know Bob as bright, courageous and honorable, as a man who is a good citizen soldier, son, husband, father, uncle and sibling. We and Bob's family are proud to stand by him."