JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- The American soldier charged with killing 16 Afghan civilians during nighttime raids on two villages last year pleaded guilty Wednesday then described shooting each victim, telling a military judge he has asked himself "a million times" why he did it.
To avoid the death penalty, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales pleaded guilty to multiple counts of murder at the hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle. He then read from a statement in a clear and steady voice, describing his actions for each killing in the same terms.
Bales, 39, said he left the remote base where he was posted in southern Afghanistan and went to the nearby villages of mud-walled compounds. Once inside, Bales said he "formed the intent" of killing the victims, then shot each one.
"This act was without legal justification, sir," Bales told the judge. Bales sat at a defense table, his handles folded in front of him.
At one point the judge, Col. Jeffery Nance, asked Bales why he committed the March 2012 killings at two villages near the remote base in southern Afghanistan where he was posted.
Bales responded: "Sir, as far as why -- I've ask that question a million times since then. There's not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did."
Most of the victims were women and children, and some of the bodies were burned; relatives have told The Associated Press they are irate at the notion Bales will escape execution for one of the worst atrocities of the Afghanistan war.
The judge still must decide whether to accept his plea.
Nance also questioned Bales about the burned bodies. Bales said he remembered there being a kerosene lantern in the room, and he recalled there being a fire and having matches in his pocket when he returned to the base. But Bales said he didn't remember setting the bodies on fire.
Nance pressed him on whether he set the bodies on fire with the lantern, and Bales replied: "It's the only thing that makes sense, sir."`
Defense attorney Emma Scanlan entered Bales' pleas on his behalf. She entered one not guilty plea, to a charge that he impeded the investigation by breaking his laptop after he was taken into custody.
Although Wednesday's proceedings provided Bales' account for the first time, survivors who testified by video link from Afghanistan during a hearing last fall vividly recalled the carnage.
A young girl in a bright headscarf described hiding behind her father as he was shot to death. Boys told of hiding behind curtains as others scrambled and begged the soldier to spare them, yelling: "We are children! We are children!" A thick-bearded man told of being shot in the neck by a gunman "as close as this bottle," gesturing to a water bottle on a table in front of him.
Prosecutors say that before dawn on March 11, 2012, Bales slipped away from Camp Belambay in Kandahar Province, armed with a 9 mm pistol and M-4 rifle outfitted with a grenade launcher.
He first attacked one village of mud-walled compounds, Alkozai, then returned to the base, woke up a fellow soldier and told him about it. The soldier didn't believe him and went back to sleep. Bales then left to attack a second village, Najiban.
The massacre prompted such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before Army investigators could reach the crime scene.
Bales was serving his fourth combat deployment and had an otherwise good if undistinguished military record in a decade-long career. The Ohio native suffered from PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, his lawyers say, and he had been drinking contraband alcohol and snorting Valium -- both provided by other soldiers -- the night of the killings.
The case raised questions about the toll multiple deployments were taking on American troops. For that reason, many legal experts believed it was unlikely he would receive the death penalty, as Army prosecutors were seeking. The military justice system hasn't executed anyone since 1961, but five men currently face death sentences.
"Any time you can strike a deal that saves your client's life, I would call that a win," said Dan Conway, a civilian military defense lawyer who is not involved in the case. "This is the right result for both parties."