JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — The villagers traveled nearly 7,000 miles to learn the fate of the American soldier who gunned down their children, siblings and parents, who set their lifeless bodies afire with a kerosene lantern. And when the news came, it came in a simple gesture: a thumbs-up from their interpreter.
A military jury sentenced Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 40, to life in prison without the possibility of release Friday. It was the most severe sentence possible. The villagers expressed gratitude for that, but they were nevertheless deeply unsatisfied that Bales lived at all.
“We wanted this murderer to be executed,” said Hajji Mohammad Wazir, who lost 11 family members in the attack by Bales. “We were brought all the way from Afghanistan to see if justice would be served. Not our way — justice was served the American way.”
Bales pleaded guilty in June in a deal to avoid the death penalty for his March 11, 2012, raids near his remote outpost in Kandahar province, when he stalked through mud-walled compounds and shot 22 people — 17 of them women and children. Some screamed for mercy, while others didn’t even have a chance to get out of bed.
The only possible sentences were life in prison without parole, or life with the possibility of release after 20 years. The soldier showed no emotion as the six jurors chose the former after deliberating for less than two hours.
His mother, sitting in the front row of the court, bowed her head, rocked in her seat, and wept.
The villagers, some of whom lost relatives in the attack and some of whom were wounded themselves, sat in the courtroom in traditional Afghan dress. When a juror announced the verdict, their interpreter gave them a thumb’s up.
“I saw his mother trying to cry, but at least she can go visit him,” Hajji Mohammad Naim, who was shot in the neck, said after the sentencing. “What about us? Our family members are actually 6 feet under.”
The outcome was largely anticlimactic — even Bales’ attorneys said they weren’t surprised. But the proceedings, which began Tuesday, offered the villagers their first chance to confront Bales in person. Naim took advantage of it, calling the soldier a “bastard” from the witness stand earlier in the week as he described the trauma he’d endured.
Some of the villagers didn’t get to say everything they wanted from the witness stand, however. After the sentence was announced, they stood on a patch of lawn outside the red brick building that housed the courtroom and let their opinions loose for a crowd of reporters. Speaking through an interpreter, they offered praise to God, then asked what it would be like for someone to break into American homes and slaughter their families.
Naim’s son, 13-year-old Sadiquallah, stood to the side, his hands on the shoulders of his younger friend, Khan, whose father was shot to death. Prompted by his elders, Sadiquallah gamely bared his leg for the cameras to reveal a large scar from a bullet, but he turned away shyly when questioned.
They also criticized American involvement in Afghanistan, saying the soldiers came to build their country but have done no such thing.
Bales never offered an explanation for why he armed himself with a 9 mm pistol and an M-4 rifle and left his post on the killing mission, but he apologized on the witness stand Thursday and described the slaughter as an “act of cowardice, behind a mask of fear, bulls--- and bravado.”
“I’m truly, truly sorry to those people whose families got taken away,” he said in a mostly steady voice during questions from one of his lawyers. “I can’t comprehend their loss. I think about it every time I look at my kids.”
He said he hoped his words would be translated for the villagers — none of whom elected to be in court to hear him.
One, Mullah Baran, called the apology a “fraud.”
Prosecutors described Bales as a “man of no moral compass.”
“In just a few short hours, Sgt. Bales wiped out generations,” Lt. Col. Jay Morse told the jury in his closing argument. “Sgt. Bales dares to ask you for mercy when he has shown none.”
A commanding general overseeing the court-martial has the option of reducing the sentence to life with the possibility of parole.
Defense attorney Emma Scanlan argued for the lighter sentence, begging jurors to consider her client’s prior life and years of good military service and suggested he snapped under the weight of his fourth combat deployment. She read from a letter Bales sent to his two children 10 weeks before the killing: “The children here are a lot like you. They like to eat candy and play soccer. They all know me because I juggle rocks for them.”
“These aren’t the words of a cold-blooded murderer,” Scanlan said.
She also read from a letter sent by a fellow soldier, a captain who said that Bales seemed to have trouble handling a decade of war and death: “The darkness that had been tugging at him for the last 10 years swallowed him whole.”
Among the character witnesses on Bales’ behalf was former NFL player Marc Edwards, who testified wearing the Super Bowl ring he won with the New England Patriots in 2002. He described a young man who was an extraordinary leader on their high school football team in Norwood, Ohio.
A neighbor also described how as a teenager Bales cared for the man’s mentally disabled son.
Prosecutors weren’t impressed. Morse noted that while he may have cared for a mentally disabled person years ago, he created one when he shot a bright young girl named Zardana in the head. She survived after months of care, but her life will never be the same, Morse noted.
Prosecutors argued that Bales’ own “stomach-churning” words after the killings demonstrated that he knew exactly what he was doing — belying the notion that he simply snapped.
“My count is 20,” Bales told another soldier when he returned to the base.
Morse displayed a photograph of a girl’s bloodied corpse and described how Bales executed her where she should have felt safest — beside her father, who was also slain.
Morse also played a surveillance video of Bales returning to the base after the killings, marching with “the methodical, confident gait of a man who’s accomplished his mission.”
Bales, an Ohio native who lived in Lake Tapps, Wash., was under personal, financial and professional stress at the time. He had stopped paying the mortgage on one of his houses, was concerned about his wife’s spending and hadn’t received a promotion he wanted.
“Sgt. Bales commits these barbaric acts because he takes stock of his life,” Morse said. “Sgt. Bales thinks the rest of the world is not giving him what he deserves.”
Ultimately, he urged the jury to send three messages: One to Bales, that he doesn’t stand with the other heroes of the U.S. military. One to other soldiers, that such atrocities will not be tolerated. And one “to the people of Afghanistan and the victims in this case, that their lives have meaning.”