A US soldier charged with killing 16 civilians, most of them women and children, near his post in Afghanistan was diagnosed before his deployment as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a brain injury, his lawyer said on Thursday.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who is accused of gunning down the villagers in March last year.
The disclosure that Bales had been diagnosed with PTSD followed a hearing in which defense lawyers told a military judge they were preparing a possible “mental health defense” for Bales. The judge, Colonel Jeffery Nance, said such a defense would require a formal psychiatric evaluation and that he would order a “sanity board” of independent doctors to review Bales’ mental condition.
Asked by the judge whether he understood that the case against him could result in the death penalty, Bales, 39, replied, “Sir, yes sir.”
Prosecutors say that Bales acted alone and with “chilling premeditation” when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his base twice, returning in the middle of his rampage to tell a fellow soldier: “I just shot up some people.”
The shootings marked one of the deadliest incidents the military has blamed on a rogue US soldier since the Vietnam War.
Civilian defense lawyer John Henry Browne said he had government documentation showing that personnel at Lewis-McChord’s Madigan Medical Center had found his client to be suffering from both post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury. He said the diagnosis was made before Bales was deployed in November 2011 to Afghanistan.
Legal experts said evidence of PTSD or a brain injury might be used by the defense to bolster an insanity claim, but they doubted such a diagnosis could convince jurors that the accused was unable to appreciate the nature and consequences of his actions — the definition of insanity under military law.
However, the defense could argue that Bales’ PTSD and brain injury were severe enough to cause “diminished mental capacity,” making it harder for prosecutors to prove premeditation, which is necessary for him to be eligible for capital punishment, experts said.