Guilty plea accepted in Afghan killings
(CNN) — (CNN) -- A military judge has accepted the guilty plea of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians in 2012, a move that will spare Bales a death sentence, a military spokesman said Wednesday.
In a hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, outside Tacoma, Washington, Bales admitted to slipping away from his outpost in southern Afghanistan and going on a house-to-house rampage in two nearby villages. The killings strained already tense ties between American troops and their Afghan allies and intensified a debate about whether to speed up the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Bales repeatedly affirmed his plea in response to questions from the judge, Col. Jeffery Nance, according to Drew Mikkelson, a reporter for CNN affilliate KING. When Nance asked why he carried out the attack, Bales replied, "I've asked that question a million times since then. There's not a good reason in the world for the horrible things I did," according to Mikkelson, who was posting updates from the courtroom via Twitter.
Both Nance and Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, commander of the Army's I Corps, have approved the plea agreement, said Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield, a spokesman for the installation. Bales now faces life in prison, but a jury of six officers and two enlisted personnel will decide whether he will have a chance at parole, Dangerfield said.
Nance set sentencing for August 19.
In addition to 16 premeditated murder counts, he pleaded guilty to six counts of attempted murder, seven counts of assault, and the use of illicit steroids and alcohol. He pleaded not guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice, however.
Bales' lawyer, John Henry Browne, said last week that Special Operations troops assigned to the Kandahar outpost "pumped" his client with the substances, and that he will raise the issue in a penalty phase to determine whether Bales will have a chance at parole.
Bales is a member of the Army's 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, an element of the 2nd Infantry Division. Browne has previously said the service made a mistake in assigning Bales to another combat tour despite evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury suffered during a combat tour in Iraq.
U.S. and allied troops invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in response to the September 11 al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. The invasion quickly routed Afghanstan's ruling Taliban, which had allowed al Qaeda to operate from its territory, but the Taliban regrouped and have mounted a guerrilla war against the allied-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai ever since.
More than 2,200 Americans and nearly 1,100 allied troops have been killed since the war began in October 2001. Nearly 15,000 civilians have died since 2007, the United Nations reported in February.
The United States plans to remove combat troops from the country by the end of 2014.