Prosecutors will seek the death penalty for a US soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in one of the most appalling atrocities of the war, the US military said on Wednesday.
US Staff Sergeant Robert Bales faces 16 murder charges, six of attempted murder, seven of assault and two of using drugs. Seventeen of the 22 people killed or wounded were women or children, and almost all were shot in the head.
If sentenced to death, Bales could be the first US soldier executed in more than half a century.
The 39-year-old is to face a full court martial authorized to sentence him to a maximum penalty of death for the alleged March massacre, the US military said.
“This decision was made after reviewing the Article 32 report of investigation,” a statement from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Washington, said, referring to the report compiled from last month’s so-called Article 32 hearings.
“The government will seek the death penalty,” base spokesman Gary Dangerfield told reporters.
The statement stressed that for capital punishment to be imposed, the court martial must unanimously agree on certain conditions.
These are that Bales “is guilty of the eligible crime, at least one aggravating factor exists and that the aggravating factor must substantially outweigh any extenuating or mitigating circumstances,” it said.
Bales allegedly left his base in the Panjwayi District of southern Kandahar Province on the night of March 11 to commit the killings, which included nine children.
Prosecutors at the Article 32 pre-trial hearing alleged that Bales left the base twice to carry out the killings, returning in between and even telling a colleague what he had done.
The week-long hearing included three sessions to hear testimony from Afghan survivors and relatives of those who died.
At the end of the pre-trial hearings, Bales’ family stressed that he was innocent until proven guilty, while his lawyer raised questions about the role alcohol, drugs and stress had in the tragedy.
However, prosecutors lashed out at the “heinous and despicable” alleged massacre.
“Based on the sheer brutality and nature of the crimes, it is our recommendation to proceed to a general court martial,” US prosecutor Major Rob Stelle said last month.