U.S. soldier accused in Afghan massacre defers plea
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales participates in an exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., Aug. 23, 2011, in this Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System picture. / AP Photo/DVIDS
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales appeared in a courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Thursday morning for his arraignment on 16 counts of premeditated murder and other charges.
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Defense lawyer John Henry Browne told The Associated Press earlier this week that Bales would plead not guilty, but another attorney, Emma Scanlan, told the judge that Bales would defer entering a plea.
Prosecutors say Bales, a father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., had been drinking early last March 11 before slipping away from his remote outpost in southern Afghanistan to attack the base. Nine children were among the dead, and some of the bodies were burned -- slayings which drew such outrage that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in the country.
Bales was on his fourth deployment and may have been suffering from a traumatic brain injury, his lawyers argue. They have criticized the base at Camp Belambay where Bales was stationed, saying that Special Forces members there gave him banned substances including alcohol, Valium and steroids, and insist that by seeking the death penalty against Bales the Army is ignoring its own responsibility for sending him to war.
The judge, Col. Jeffrey Nance, said Thursday he will order that Bales undergo an official review of his mental health, called a "sanity board," after prosecutors argued that without doing so Bales should be barred from presenting any sort of mental-health defense to the charges.
Such reviews are conducted by neutral doctors tasked with discerning a defendant's mental state at the time of the crime and whether he's competent to stand trial. Bales' mental health has been expected to be a key part of the case.
"An accused simply cannot be allowed to claim a lack of mental responsibility through the introduction of expert testimony from his own doctors, while at the same time leaving the government with no ability to overcome its burden of proof because its doctors have been precluded from conducting any examination of the very matters in dispute," Maj. Robert Stelle wrote in a Jan. 3 motion obtained by The Associated Press.
Bales' attorneys have said he may have suffered from a traumatic brain injury when he was knocked out by an improvised bomb explosion during one of his tours in Iraq. They have thus far refused to let him take part in the sanity board because the Army would not let him have a lawyer present for the examination, would not record the examination and would not appoint a neuropsychologist expert in traumatic brain injuries to the board.
However, in a reply to the government's motion, Scanlan wrote Tuesday that Bales will participate -- as long as only certain information about the results are forwarded to prosecutors. Prosecutors should promptly receive findings about his current competence, but nothing about his mental state at the time of the attack, she wrote.
That information should not be turned over to the government until Bales' defense team actually gives notice of their intent to use a mental-health defense or to have an expert testify, Scanlan said.
"There is no authority for the bizarre proposition that the accused has to submit to a compelled mental health examination before he gives notice of a mental defense," she wrote.
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