Defense attorneys for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales mined contradictory statements from Afghan villagers over the past three nights to suggest that more than one American soldier could have been involved in a March massacre that claimed the lives of 16 Afghan civilians.
The Army contends Bales carried out the killings by himself in two separate trips out of his combat outpost, Village Stability Platform Belambay, in the early hours of March 11 -- first to the village of Alkozai and then to the village of Najiban.
Bales, a 39-year-old former Lake Tapps resident, is in court at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for a evidence hearing that could lead to a death-penalty court-martial. He spent his entire Army career at Lewis-McChord, and served on four combat tours with the same Stryker brigade.
Prosecutors over the past week have called on several of Bales’ alleged victims who insisted they saw only one shooter, as well as Bales’ fellow soldiers who testified he was the only person missing from their ranks at Belambay on the night of the killings.
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Bales’ defense team, however, has plenty of material to suggest that multiple soldiers participated in the killings.
“One person cannot do this work,” said Maj. Khudai Dad, an Afghan officer who investigated the killings the morning after they took place.
He testified via a video link from Kandahar Province late Sunday. He did not have evidence to support his argument, only a contention that one person could not kill so many people in separate villages.
He conceded that he spent only an hour in the two villages.
Better evidence could come from Masooma, the widow of a man killed in Najiban. She told an Army Criminal Investigative Command agent in June that she saw two American soldiers enter her home, shout about the Taliban, take her husband Mohammed Dawood outside and execute him with a pistol to his head.
Mohammed Dawood’s widow told 1st Agent Leona Mansapit that she overheard multiple Americans speaking English in the compounds around her home. The widow also reported hearing helicopters overhead and seeing multiple flares shot in the sky.
Mansapit, who presented Masooma's version of events in court Sunday, said she had no reason to doubt the credibility of the widow.
No other witnesses in the past week of testimony have described helicopters near Najiban that night. Several American soldiers have said they shot flares called illumination rounds in the sky when they heard gunfire about 1:30 a.m. on March 11 and again about 3:30 a.m. when they realized Bales was missing.
Masooma did not testify at Bales’ evidence hearing. Her family does not want her to testify because she is a woman, a Lewis-McChord official said.
"We’re still trying to bridge that gap,” the official said.
Instead, her brother-in-law, Mullah Baraan, spoke for her. He insisted that she told him only one soldier attacked her home.
“I talked to my brother’s wife and I had her tell me exactly what happened,” he said.
Bales’ defense attorney, John Henry Browne, asked if Baraan had received a $50,000 payment from the U.S. government. Baraan confirmed that he had, to take care of the children, he said. That’s the sum the U.S. has given to relatives of each of Bales’ alleged victims.
One key piece of prosecution evidence would make it difficult for Bales’ defense team to demonstrate that multiple soldiers were in the village of Najiban.
A surveillance video recorded about 4:30 a.m. that day shows a single, caped figure walking from the direction of Najiban to Belambay. The figure turns himself in to two American soldiers at Belambay’s gate. Those soldiers have testified that they apprehended an armed and bloodied Bales wearing some sort of cape that morning.
Several children who testified via video link from Kandahar said they saw lights around their homes, as if other soldiers were outside. One young girl wounded in Alkozai also said she saw multiple lights that night. But Robina, 7, said “I saw one guy who came inside the home.”
Last week, a U.S. soldier testified that he and three other junior soldiers at Bales’ outpost approached an Army criminal investigator with a theory that a second sergeant was involved in the killings. They based their speculation on reports from an Afghan guard that two Americans walked into Belambay late on the night of the killings, and one American left the base about 3 a.m.
The junior soldiers fingered a sergeant who was close to Bales. They were concerned that he appeared to have showered and shaved the night of the massacre when commanders checked to see who was missing from Belambay. That was conspicuous to the junior soldier who testified because soldiers at the outpost had been growing beards, and the sergeant should have had a month’s worth of growth on his face.
The Army investigated the sergeant, seizing his clothes and taking photographs of him. The only blood on the sergeant’s clothes was his own, a DNA examiner testified last week. Also, he had a full beard in a photograph taken of him two days after the killings.
In other testimony over the weekend, an Afghan teenager who suffered a gunshot wound to his leg testified from Kandahar that he saw one American soldier that night.
Browne reminded the boy, named Rafiullah, that he has told another one of Bales’ defense attorneys that multiple soldiers were in the fields around his home. On Saturday, Rafiullah distanced himself from that statement.
"I might have told (the defense attorney) that, but I don’t remember,” he said.
After seven straight days of court action and three consecutive late-night sessions to accommodate witnesses in southern Afghanistan's time zone, there is no court action today. Bales' hearing is scheduled to resume Tuesday morning.