By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in two rampages from his Army post last year has reached a plea deal with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty, one of his lawyers said on Wednesday.
Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is accused of gunning down villagers, mostly women and children, in attacks on their family compounds in Kandahar province in March 2012.
Lawyer Emma Scanlan said in an email that Bales would plead guilty to premeditated murder charges and would then go before a military jury for sentencing to determine whether a life sentence for his crimes would include the possibility of parole.
"There will be a jury for the sentencing phase beginning in August," Scanlan said.
Army prosecutors, who had sought the death penalty, have said Bales acted alone and with chilling premeditation when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his base twice in the night, returning in the middle of his rampage to tell a fellow soldier: "I just shot up some people."
The shootings marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on a rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and further eroded strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in that country.
Defense attorneys have argued that Bales was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a brain injury even before his deployment to Afghanistan.
During a nine-day pre-trial hearing in November, witnesses testified that Bales had been angered by a bomb blast near his outpost that severed a fellow soldier's leg days before the shootings.
Prosecutors presented physical evidence to link Bales to the crime scene, with a forensic investigator saying a sample of blood on his clothes matched a swab taken in one of the compounds where the shootings occurred.
Bales is to enter a guilty plea on June 5 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a military installation in Washington state. The presiding judge, Army Colonel Jeffery Nance, and a commanding general must still approve the deal.
Victor Hansen, the vice president of The National Institute of Military Justice, said Bales' multiple deployments and diminished mental state raised "some extenuating and mitigating circumstances" that may have made both sides amenable to such a deal.
"The government saw there was some risk in their case," Hansen said. "From the defense standpoint, every capital litigator has one primary objective, which is to avoid death. They can say they succeeded in that objective even if he gets life without parole."
Under the deal, the Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, is to provide a full account of the attacks, notwithstanding his patchy memory, to demonstrate that he understands and accepts his guilt. Nance will then decide whether to accept his plea.
Bales' deal mirrors a similar agreement struck last month at Lewis-McChord, where Sergeant John Russell pleaded guilty to killing two medical staff officers and three soldiers at the Camp Liberty combat stress clinic, near Baghdad's airport in a 2009 shooting spree.
Russell, who was spared execution for one of the worst cases of violence by an American soldier against other U.S. troops, was sentenced to life in prison without parole following an abbreviated court martial.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Tim Dobbyn and Eric Beech)