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Sentencing phase to open for U.S. soldier guilty of Afghan murders

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, (L) 1st platoon sergeant, Blackhorse Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, (L) 1st platoon sergeant, Blackhorse Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team

By Jonathan Kaminsky

TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - The military judge in the court-martial of a U.S. soldier who pleaded guilty in June to the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians was due to hear arguments on Monday over rules for the sentencing proceedings that open this week in Washington state.

Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales' lawyers argued last week that prosecutors' exposure to statements he made during a psychiatric exam — after the judge mistakenly furnished them with a copy — compromised their client's constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination.

Defense lawyers cited the mistake as the basis for a motion to remove the prosecution team from the sentencing phase of Bales' court martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma.

The judge, Army Colonel Jeffery Nance, rejected that motion last week, agreeing with the prosecution that seeing a document was not equivalent to using it against a defendant, and that the error would not preclude Bales from receiving a fair trial.

On Monday, Nance was set to hear arguments from both sides on procedural rules that should be followed to avoid prejudicing the outcome of the sentencing phase.

In a deal with prosecutors that spares him the death penalty, Bales pleaded guilty in June to walking off his base in Afghanistan's Kandahar province before dawn on March 11, 2012, and killing 16 unarmed civilians, most of them women and children, in attacks on their family compounds.

The slayings marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on a single, rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and further strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in that country.

The sentencing hearings, due to begin with the selection of a new jury on Tuesday, will determine whether Bales will be eligible for parole or spend the rest of his life in prison. Defense lawyer John Henry Browne has said he expects the proceedings to last between seven and 10 days.

Military lawyers for the prosecution last week told Nance they had given him a DVD of their case a day before mistakenly receiving the mental health evaluation and had provided him summaries of statements that prosecution witnesses were expected to make during the sentencing phase.

If anything the prosecution presents to the jury deviates from this, they argued, the judge could demand that prosecutors show it was not based upon the inadmissible statements Bales made to military doctors.

Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, acknowledged the killings upon pleading guilty in June and told the court there was "not a good reason in this world" for his actions.

Defense attorneys have argued that Bales, a father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury even before his deployment to Afghanistan.

(Reporting and writing by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Steve Gorman and Paul Simao)

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