By Laura L. Myers
TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier charged with capital murder in the slayings of 16 civilians near his military post in Afghanistan was diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury prior to the killings, his lawyer said on Thursday.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who is accused of gunning down the villagers, mostly women and children, in cold blood during two rampages through their family compounds in Kandahar province last March.
The disclosure that Bales was diagnosed with PTSD followed a hearing in which defense lawyers told a military judge they were preparing a possible "mental health defense" for Bales, who appeared in court wearing a green military dress uniform.
The judge, Colonel Jeffery Nance, said such a defense would require a formal psychiatric evaluation and he would order a "sanity board" of independent doctors to review Bales' mental condition.
During Thursday's 90-minute hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, where Bales is being held in detention, defense lawyers also deferred entering a plea on behalf of their client and waived a formal reading of the charges.
Asked by the judge whether he understood that the case against him could result in the death penalty, Bales, 39, an Army staff sergeant, replied, "Sir, yes sir."
Under the military justice system, a plea is commonly postponed at this stage to preserve legal options for the defense, whose ability to make additional motions is severely restricted once a plea is entered, experts say.
Civilian defense lawyer John Henry Browne told the judge, Colonel Jeffery Nance, that he would need at least a year and a half to prepare for Bales' defense.
BRAIN INJURY DIAGNOSIS FOLLOWED IED BLAST IN IRAQ
Prosecutors say Bales, a father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, acted alone and with "chilling premeditation" when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his base twice, returning in the middle of his rampage to tell a fellow soldier: "I just shot up some people."
The shootings, which occurred over a five-hour period in March, marked one of the deadliest incidents the military has blamed on a rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War, and strained U.S.-Afghan relations.
Browne told reporters he doubted Bales would get a fair trial unless "we slow this thing down."
He said two Afghans that prosecutors had listed as potential witnesses in the case turned out to be insurgents who were killed by U.S.-led forces, a claim that could not be immediately corroborated with U.S. military officials.
Browne said he had government documentation showing that personnel at Lewis-McChord's Madigan Medical Center had found his client to be suffering from both post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.
He said the diagnosis was made before Bales was deployed in November 2011 to Afghanistan on a tour of duty that ended abruptly with the events for which he is charged.
Defense lawyers previously have said Bales had suffered a possible concussion from a bomb blast during a prior tour of duty in Iraq.
Bales was bound over for court-martial in December and faces 16 murder charges, as well as other charges, including attempted murder, assault and drug and alcohol charges.
During a pre-trial hearing in November witnesses testified that he had been angered by a bomb blast near his outpost that severed a fellow soldier's leg days before the shootings.
The government believes Bales was solely responsible for the deaths, and survivors have testified that they saw only one U.S. soldier. However, several indirect accounts have suggested more than one soldier may have been involved.
Defense attorney Emma Scanlan said Bales would participate in a review of his mental state, but wanted him to be examined by a neuropsychologist with expertise in traumatic brain injuries. She also wanted defense attorneys to be present at the examination, which the defense wants recorded.
(This story corrects time frame in paragraph 14 to before November 2011, instead of early 2012)
(Writing by Eric M. Johnson and Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Tim Dobbyn and Andrew Hay)