Afghan killings case testing military system

Associated Press Modified: November 13, 2012 at 6:49 am •  Published: November 13, 2012

Villagers may be leery to leave their homeland to go to a foreign country and confront members of one of the mightiest militaries in the world. And as foreign nationals, they cannot be subpoenaed.

While there have been cases of troops being sentenced to life in prison for committing atrocities, the vast majority of those convicted for extrajudicial killings have been let off with little to no jail time for crimes that in civilian courts could carry hefty sentences, legal experts say.

Former U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston — who was invited by the United States to examine extrajudicial killings in Iraq and Afghanistan — pointed out the January 2006 sentencing of Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshofer Jr.

He was given two months confinement to his base, a fine of $6,000, and a letter of reprimand after being found guilty of negligent homicide and negligent dereliction of duty for the death of an Iraqi general who had turned himself in to military authorities.

"Military records released in Freedom of Information Act litigation make clear that the Welshofer sentence is not an anomaly," Alston wrote in a 2010 report.

The military hasn't executed a service member since 1961, when an Army ammunition handler was hanged for raping an 11-year-old girl in Austria.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the death penalty is possible if Bales is found guilty.

Afghan witnesses recounted the villagers who lived in the attacked compounds and listed the names of those killed. The bodies were buried quickly under Islamic custom, and no forensic evidence was available to prove the number of victims.

The witnesses included Zardana, 8, who sipped from a pink juice box before she testified. She suffered a gunshot wound to the top of her head, but after two months at a military hospital in Afghanistan and three more at a Navy hospital in San Diego, she can walk and talk again.

None of the Afghan witnesses were able to identify Bales as the shooter, but other evidence, including tests of the blood on his clothes, implicated him, according to testimony from a DNA expert.

Several soldiers testified that Bales returned to the base alone just before dawn the morning of the attacks, covered in blood, and that he made incriminating statements such as, "I thought I was doing the right thing."

Prosecutors say he also made a mid-massacre confession, returning to the base to wake another soldier and report his activities before heading out to the other village. The soldier testified that he didn't believe Bales and went back to sleep.

Bales, an Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., has not entered a plea and was not expected to testify at the preliminary hearing. His attorneys say he has post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered a concussive head injury while serving in Iraq.

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Watson contributed from San Diego. Associated Press Writer Mirwais Khan in Kandahar also contributed to this report.

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Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle