published Saturday, November 10th, 2012

Guards testify about night of Afghan massacre

In this detail of a courtroom sketch, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, center, is shown Monday during a preliminary hearing in a military courtroom at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington state.
In this detail of a courtroom sketch, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, center, is shown Monday during a preliminary hearing in a military courtroom at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington state.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — Two Afghan National Army guards testified via a live video stream from Afghanistan, recounting what they had seen in the pre-dawn darkness outside a base the night prosecutors say a U.S. soldier massacred 16 civilians.

One guard recounted that a man had arrived at the base and did not stop even after he asked him three times to do so. Later in the night, the second guard said, he saw a soldier leave the base — laughing as he went.

The guards did not say the soldier was the same person nor did they identify the man as Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who is accused of carrying out the March 11 attack on two villages near the base in southern Afghanistan.

Prosecutors say Bales broke his shooting rampage into two episodes, attacking one village, returning to the base and then departing again to raid another.

The guards testified at an overnight session of a hearing in Bales’ case that will help determine whether he faces a court-martial. Bales could face the death penalty if he is convicted.

The hearing was also expected to feature testimony from two victims and four relatives of victims. Like the guards, they were scheduled to speak by live video to a military courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Dressed in green fatigues, the first guard, named Nematullah, testified from Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Friday night, saying he had told the man who arrived around 1:30 a.m. to stop.

The guard said the man came toward him, said “how are you” in an Afghan language and went inside the base.

Under cross-examination from Bales’ attorney, John Henry Browne, who traveled to Afghanistan to question the witnesses, the guard said he saw the man but could not identify him.

Browne pressed further, asking if the guard could describe the soldier at all. The guard said he was white and well built, but those were the only details he could provide.

Nematullah also said the soldier was coming from the north, which is the direction of a village that prosecutors say Bales attacked first in the nighttime rampage March 11.

Later in the night, a second guard, Tosh Ali, said he replaced Nematullah and saw an American leaving the base around 2:30 a.m. The man greeted Ali as well with “how are you” in an Afghan language, and was laughing as he walked away.

Bales, a 39-year-old Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder in the attack in southern Afghanistan.

Prosecutors say that Bales wore a T-shirt, cape and night-vision goggles — no body armor — when he slipped away from his remote post, Camp Belambay.

In between his attacks, he woke a fellow soldier, reported what he’d done and said he was headed out to kill more, the soldier testified. But the soldier didn’t believe what Bales said, and went back to sleep.

Nine children were among the victims, and 11 of the victims were from the same family.

On Thursday, a U.S. Army DNA expert testified that Bales had the blood of at least four people on his clothes and guns when he surrendered.

The blood of two males and two females was discovered on Bales’ pants, shirt, gloves, rifle and other items, said Christine Trapolsi, an examiner at the Army’s Criminal Investigation Laboratory.

To preserve the evidence, she said she only tested a portion of the bloodstains and it’s possible more DNA profiles could be discovered through additional testing.

Another forensic expert from the Criminal Investigation Lab, fiber specialist Larry Peterson, testified that a small piece of fabric that matched the cape Bales reportedly wore was discovered on a pillow in one of the attacked compounds.

Prosecutors referred to the cape as a blanket, but Peterson said it was more like a decorative covering for a window or doorway.

Bales has not entered a plea and was not expected to testify. His attorneys have not discussed the evidence, but say Bales has post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered a concussive head injury during a prior deployment to Iraq.

A U.S. agent who investigated the massacre has testified that local villagers were so angered it was weeks before American forces could visit the crime scenes less than a mile from a remote base.

By that time, bodies had been buried and some bloodstains had been scraped from the walls, said Special Agent Matthew Hoffman of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. Other stains remained, on walls and floors.

Investigators recovered shell casings consistent with the weapons Bales reportedly carried.

Hoffman also said Bales tested positive for steroids three days after the killings.

Bales leaned back in his chair at the defense table and did not react as an Army doctor, Maj. Travis Hawks, gave clinical descriptions of treating the wounded villagers as they arrived at a nearby base.

One girl had a large bullet wound in the top of her head, he said. She was unresponsive at first, but survived after treatment. A woman had wounds to her chest and genitals, but she and her relatives insisted that the male doctors not treat her. Prosecutors showed photos of the victims being treated.

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