JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Washington - A U.S. soldier was sentenced Friday to life in prison without a chance of release for massacring 16 Afghan civilians last year, one of the worst atrocities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
A military jury announced the sentence hours after closing arguments ended, with prosecutors saying Staff Sgt. Robert Bales' own "stomach-churning" words proved he knew what he was doing when he carried out the pre-dawn attack in March 2012.
Bales, 40, pleaded guilty in June in a deal to avoid the death penalty. He took the witness stand Thursday and apologized for the pre-dawn attack in March 2012, describing it as an act of cowardice.
Bales, a father of two, was serving his fourth combat deployment when he left his outpost at Camp Belambay, in Kandahar province, in the middle of the night to attack two villages.
Arguing Bales should not get parole, prosecutor Jay Morse showed jurors photos of a young girl who was killed as she screamed and cried. He showed surveillance video of Bales returning to his base with "the methodical, confident gait of a man who's accomplished his mission."
Defense attorney Emma Scanlan said no one can minimize the atrocities Bales committed but she urged jurors to consider his earlier military service and leave him with a "sliver of light" - a sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 20 years.
She read from letters sent by Bales' fellow soldiers, one who said that a decade of seeing his fellow soldiers killed and maimed left him in a darkness that "swallowed him whole."
Several survivors and family members of the victims who were flown to the U.S. testified this week, and one cursed Bales for attacking villagers as some slept and others screamed for mercy.
"If someone loses one child, you can imagine how devastated their life would be," said Haji Mohammad Wazir, who lost 11 family members, including his mother, wife and six of his seven children.
He was serving his fourth combat deployment last year when he left his outpost in Kandahar province in the middle of the night to attack the villages, shooting his victims and setting some of their bodies on fire with a kerosene lantern.
His attorneys have suggested that post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury may have played a role in the killings. But they offered no testimony from psychiatrists or other doctors.
If the defense can convince two of six jurors that Bales deserves leniency because he was a good soldier who simply "snapped," he would be eligible for parole in 20 years.
Bales' lawyers did their best to paint a sympathetic picture.
And Bales described the trouble he had readjusting to civilian life after his deployments to Iraq. He became angry all the time, he said. He began drinking heavily. He began to see a counselor but quit because he didn't think it was working and he didn't want others to find him weak.
His rage worsened as he deployed to Afghanistan in late 2011.