Bales Defense Must Decide Strategy

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales

Attorneys for the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier accused of murdering 16 Afghan civilians last spring are five weeks from a deadline for declaring whether they intend to use a mental health defense at his court-martial.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales faces the death penalty on charges that he slipped out of his combat outpost by himself twice in the early hours of March 11, 2012, to murder the civilians in their homes and to wound six more noncombatants.

His lawyers have said for the past year that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and combat-related head injuries, suggesting those ailments overcame him on what was his fourth combat deployment from Lewis-McChord since 2003.

Army judge Col. Jeff Nance on Tuesday ordered the lawyers to signal by May 29 whether they plan to argue that Bales' mental health ailments diminished his responsibility for the massacre in Kandahar province's Panjwai district.

They also must hand to prosecutors by that date a summary of a sanity review Bales recently completed if they plan to call a mental health expert to testify at any point.

"Bottom line is, on the 29th of May the defense has to advise the government if they are going to defend on lack of mental responsibility," Nance said.

His attorneys on Tuesday also asked Nance to change one of their key mental health experts in Bales' defense, requesting to consult with Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Roger Pittman. They are seeking to replace psychiatrist Thomas Grieger, their current PTSD expert.

Defense attorney Emma Scanlan would not say why Bales' team requested the change, citing attorney-client privilege.

Prosecutor Maj. John Riesenberg charged the defense team was "witness shopping" for someone who would support their point of view at the government's expense.

Also Tuesday, Nance granted a series of requests to have the Army provide character witnesses who knew Bales as a young man, if the case proceeds to a sentencing phase after a guilty verdict in a court-martial.

The witnesses include his mother, aunt, one of his brothers, a high school football coach, a high school administrator or teacher, two high school friends, and the father or uncle of a disabled child whom Bales befriended.

Prosecutors sought to block some of those witnesses, but Nance tended to give the benefit of the doubt to defense attorneys. They argued that testimony from any of those character witnesses could represent the difference between life and death for Bales.

Bales "was a good kid, a good man and a good soldier," Scanlan said.

Bales sat quietly through the three-hour hearing.

He talked with his wife, Kari, for about 20 minutes during a recess, affectionately catching up with each other.

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