Survivors who testified by video link from Afghanistan during a hearing last fall vividly recalled the carnage.
A young girl in a bright headscarf described hiding behind her father as he was shot to death. Boys told of hiding behind curtains as others scrambled and begged the soldier to spare them, yelling: "We are children! We are children!" A thick-bearded man told of being shot in the neck by a gunman "as close as this bottle," gesturing to a water bottle on a table in front of him.
The massacre prompted such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before Army investigators could reach the crime scene.
The deaths also raised questions about the frequency of combat deployments and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bales was serving his fourth deployment. Until the attacks, he had a good, if undistinguished, military record in a decade-long career. The Ohio native suffered from PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, his lawyers say, and he had been drinking contraband alcohol and snorting Valium — both provided by other soldiers — the night of the killings.
Bales said he was also taking three doses of steroids each week to make himself "smaller, leaner, more fit for the mission," and to help him recover quickly after rigorous activity.
The drugs "definitely increased my irritability and anger," he said.
Given Bales' prior deployments and apparent PTSD, military law experts had suggested that a jury was unlikely to sentence him to death. Defense attorney John Henry Browne had sought to place blame with the military for sending Bales back to war in the first place.
Bales and his defense team wanted the death penalty off the table. Prosecutors were able to secure a premeditated murder conviction, which might have been difficult to obtain at trial.
After the judge accepted the guilty plea, Bales' lawyers and prosecutors sparred over whether the defense should have already notified the government of any intent to call expert witnesses at sentencing to testify about Bales' mental health.
The judge ordered the defense to give notice by July 1 if attorneys plan to use mental health experts and to turn over all underlying data from mental health exams by that day.
Bales' attorneys said afterward that he is remorseful and that he didn't apologize in court because now is not the time. They also said Bales hopes villagers in Afghanistan do not take retribution against other American soldiers for his actions.
"Sergeant Bales has been waiting for the day that he can accept responsibility for what he's done, the day that he can hopefully give some sense of peace to the people who are the victims of this tragedy, to his own family, and to the soldiers who are still serving in Afghanistan," Scanlan said.
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