JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. (AP) — A friend of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales testified Wednesday that he thought Bales seemed remorseful after being taken into custody following a massacre at two Afghan villages last March.
Defense witness 1st Sgt. Vernon Bigham testified by video from Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan as the third day of testimony began at a preliminary hearing for Bales.
The hearing, which is also expected to feature video testimony from Afghan villagers and soldiers on Friday and Saturday, will help determine whether Bales faces a court martial on 16 counts of premeditated murder.
Bales is accused of leaving Camp Belambay in Kandahar province last March to slaughter civilians during a pre-dawn attack on two nearby villages.
Bigham said he saw Bales at the air field following the killings and that he seemed to want to confess. But Bales had invoked his right to remain silent, and Bigham told him not to talk to him.
Bales had been stationed at the remote outpost at Belambay because he was considered tough enough to handle the assignment, Bigham testified.
Other soldiers have testified that Bales made a mid-massacre confession, asked for help bleaching his blood-stained clothing and deliberately destroyed his laptop computer.
Bales' statements and actions show he knew what he was doing the night 16 civilians were slaughtered, prosecutors say.
The remarks could pose a high hurdle for defense lawyers who have indicated that Bales' mental health will be a big part of their case.
Bales, a 39-year-old father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., also faces six counts of attempted murder in the March 11 attack on the villages of Balandi and Alkozai, which counted nine children among its victims.
One of the worst atrocities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the attack prompted the U.S. to halt combat operations for days in the face of protests, and military investigators couldn't reach the crime scenes for a month.
A prosecutor, Lt. Col. Jay Morse, has said Bales spent the evening before the massacre at his remote outpost of Camp Belambay with two other soldiers, watching a movie about revenge killings, sharing contraband whiskey from a plastic bottle and discussing an attack that cost one of their comrades his leg.
Within hours, a cape-wearing Bales slipped away from the post and embarked on a killing spree of his own, Morse said. He attacked one village then returned to Belambay, where he woke up a colleague and reported what he'd done, Morse said. The colleague testified that he didn't believe Bales and went back to sleep.
Bales headed out again, Morse said, and attacked the second village before returning once again in the pre-dawn darkness, bloody and incredulous that his comrades ordered him to surrender his weapons.
A medic, Sgt. 1st Class James Stillwell, said Tuesday he saw Bales covered in blood and knew from the pattern of the staining it wasn't his own. He asked where it came from and where he'd been.
Bales shrugged, Stillwell testified.
"If I tell you, you guys will have to testify against me," Stillwell quoted him as saying.
Soldiers also testified that after being taken into custody, Bales told them, "I thought I was doing the right thing."
And Stillwell said Bales told him that the soldiers at Camp Belambay would appreciate his actions once the fighting season ramped up: "You guys are going to thank me come June."
Bales was largely calm and compliant when he turned himself in following the massacre, several soldiers testified Tuesday.
But he also deliberately mangled his laptop, said two soldiers assigned to guard him as he gathered his things.
One of them, Sgt. Ross O'Rourke, testified that he removed the laptop from Bales' rucksack after the defendant told him he didn't want to take it with him. O'Rourke said Bales then grabbed the computer and folded the screen back, breaking it.
Bales has not entered a plea, and is not expected to testify. His attorneys, who did not give an opening statement, 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.
Bales has not participated in a medical evaluation known as a "sanity board," because his lawyers have objected to having him meet with Army doctors outside their presence.