An American soldier has plead guilty to murdering 16 Afghan civilians in a court hearing today where he is expected to publicly give his account of the massacre for the first time.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been charged with 16 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder and seven counts of assault.
His only not guilty plea was to a charge of impeding the investigation by destroying a laptop computer.
The judge, Col. Jeffery Nance is expected to question Bales on his 33 page "Stipulation of Fact." He is giving the sergeant a final opportunity to read the document before he agrees it is truthful. The judge is expected to question Bales about his admissions and possibly go into detail about the massacre.
The charges stem from a horrific event in March 2012 when Bales allegedly snuck out of his remote outpost in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar to go on a shooting spree in two nearby villages. The pre-dawn attack left 16 villagers dead and six injured. Nine of those killed were children.
Bales, 39, is a father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash. He is wearing military dress for the hearing and his wife is sitting in the front row.
Bales' attorney John Henry Browne said last week that Bales wanted to plead guilty as part of a deal in order to avoid the death penalty, according to the Associated Press.
If the plea is accepted, a jury this summer would decide whether Bales should be sentenced to live in prison with or without the possibility for parole.
In a November preliminary hearing, several of his fellow soldiers testified that Bales returned to the base alone just before dawn, covered in blood, and that he made incriminating statements such as, "I thought I was doing the right thing." Some of the blood on his person was later matched to at least one of the shooting victims, according to prosecutors.
Evidence was also presented that suggested Bales conducted the alleged massacre as revenge for previous attacks on his unit, particularly a roadside bomb attack a few weeks earlier that severely wounded a fellow soldier. Bales did not testify during the two week hearing, which was to determine if he would face a court martial, but some of the surviving villagers did appear via satellite from Afghanistan.
Some of his squad mates admitted to having consumed alcohol prior to the attacks, but said Bales did not seem to have been incapacitated by the alcohol.
Bales' attorneys have said that their client's mental state may have possibly been clouded by the alcohol as well as steroids and sleeping aids he had taken, but prosecutors countered that comments made by Bales after he was apprehended demonstrated he had a clear state of mind about the violent acts he is alleged to have committed.
An Army press release said that Bales faces a maximum punishment of death if he is convicted of the charges against him. However, the release noted it may be difficult for prosecutors to obtain such a sentence.
"For capital punishment to be imposed, the court-martial members must unanimously find: the service member 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 found by the court-martial members," it says.
There has not been a military execution since 1961.