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By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A U.S. Army sergeant charged with killing 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood was due in court on Wednesday for a court-martial proceeding in which he is expected to plead guilty under a deal with military prosecutors to avoid the death penalty.
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is accused of roaming off his Army post in the Afghan province of Kandahar last March and gunning down unarmed villagers, mostly women and children, in attacks on their family compounds.
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 lawyer Emma Scanlan told Reuters last week that Bales had agreed to plead guilty during the hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state to 16 counts of premeditated murder, as well as to charges of attempted murder and assault.
In return, military prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty, Scanlan said. A court-martial jury will decide in a sentencing phase set for August whether a life term for Bales' crimes will include the possibility of parole, she said.
An Army spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Gary Dangerfield, confirmed that Bales was expected to enter a plea at the hearing, but said he could not comment on defense assertions that a deal had been reached with prosecutors.
Any deal would be subject to final approval by the presiding judge, Army Colonel Jeffery Nance, who must first determine whether Bales has provided a complete account of the events, understands his plea and accepts the consequences of his acts.
Army prosecutors have said Bales acted alone and with chilling premeditation when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his post twice during the night to attack civilians. He is alleged to have returned to base in the middle of the rampage to tell a fellow soldier: "I just shot up some people."
Defense attorneys have argued that Bales, the father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder 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.
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 a plea deal that spares him the death penalty.
"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."
The plea deal outlined by Bales' lawyers was similar to an agreement struck at Lewis-McChord in April, when Army Sergeant John Russell pleaded guilty to killing two fellow U.S. servicemen at a military counseling center in Iraq, near Baghdad's airport, in a 2009 shooting spree.
Russell was sentenced to life in prison without parole following an abbreviated court-martial stemming from one of the worst cases of violence by an American soldier against other U.S. troops.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; editing by Cynthia Johnston and Christopher Wilson)