TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - Military prosecutors said on Monday they would seek the death penalty for a U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers when he ventured out of his camp on two drunken forays earlier this year.
The lead prosecutor, Lieutenant Colonel Jay Morse, told a preliminary hearing he would present evidence proving "chilling premeditation" on the part of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The shootings of mostly women and children in Afghanistan's Kandahar province in March marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on an individual U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and eroded already strained U.S.-Afghan ties after more than a decade of conflict in the country.
Bales faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder, as well as charges of assault and wrongfully possessing and using steroids and alcohol while deployed.
Morse said he was submitting a "capital referral" in the case, requesting that Bales be executed if convicted.
The hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state is expected to last two weeks and include witness testimony in Afghanistan carried by live video, including villagers and Afghan soldiers.
At the end, military commanders will decide whether there is sufficient evidence for Bales to stand trial by court-martial.
Bales, dressed in camouflage Army fatigues and with his head shaven, embraced his wife in court before the hearing began. He then sat silently watching the proceedings from the defence table as Morse summarized the prosecution's account of the events of March 10-11.
According to Morse, Bales had been drinking with two fellow soldiers before he left his base, Camp Belambay, and went to a village where he committed the first killings.
Morse said Bales then returned to the camp and told one of his drinking buddies, Sergeant Jason McLaughlin, "I just shot up some people," before leaving again for a second village am killing more people. Morse called Bales' actions "deliberate, methodical."
The prosecution showed a video shot by night-vision camera from a surveillance balloon over the camp, showing a figure they identified as Bales walking back to the post wearing a dark blue bed sheet tied around his neck like a cloak.
He is seen being confronted by three soldiers, including the two men prosecutors said he had been drinking with, who order him to drop his weapons and take him into custody as he is heard saying, "Are you fucking kidding me?"
One of the three, Corporal David Godwin, testified that Bales kept repeating the words, "I thought I was doing the right thing," and "It's bad. It's bad. It's really bad."
Godwin recounted that he, Bales and McLaughlin had been drinking whiskey together for 45 minutes in McLaughlin's room while watching the Hollywood film "Man on Fire," which stars Denzel Washington as a former assassin bent on revenge.
Prosecutors said Bales had been armed with a rifle, a pistol and a grenade launcher. They said the killings took place over a five-hour period in two villages and the dead included members of four families. Most had been shot in the head.
Bales, who is not expected to testify during the so-called Article 32 hearing, had been confined at a military prison in Kansas from March until he was moved in October to Lewis-McChord, where his infantry regiment was based.
John Henry Browne, Bales' civilian lawyer, has suggested that Bales may not have acted alone and may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Browne told Reuters last month that he and an Army prosecutor planned to question five to 15 Afghan villagers and military personnel as key witnesses from Kandahar Air Field.
Bales also has two military defence counsellors. One is Gregory Malson, who represented William Kreutzer, a U.S. Army sergeant sentenced to life in prison three years ago for killing an officer and wounding 18 U.S. soldiers in a 1995 shooting spree.
Separately, Bales is subject to a review of his mental fitness to stand trial, often referred to as a "sanity board." The Army has not disclosed the status of that evaluation.
Bales' wife, Kari, told a local NBC affiliate, KING5-TV, before Monday's hearing that she believed he was innocent, as a massacre of innocent civilians was "not something my husband would have done ... not the Bob that I know."
The shootings highlighted discipline problems among U.S. soldiers from Lewis-McChord, which was also the home base of five enlisted men from the former 5th Stryker Brigade charged with premeditated murder in connection with three killings of unarmed Afghan civilians in 2010.
Four of those men were convicted or pleaded guilty in court-martial proceedings to murder or manslaughter charges and were sentenced to prison. Charges against the fifth were dropped.
Additional reporting by Laura L. Myers; Writing by Steve Gorman, Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Brunnstrom