ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The American soldier accused of killing 16 villagers in Afghanistan last year plans to plead guilty in order to avoid the death penalty. Lawyers say Staff Sergeant Robert Bales will plead guilty to 16 counts of premeditated murder next week and that his sentencing trial will be held in September.
The deal, which takes execution off the table, will need to be approved by a military judge at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. NPR's Martin Kaste is covering this story, and he joins us now from Seattle. Martin, you spoke briefly with the lawyer for Sergeant Bales. What did he have to say about this deal?
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Yes. I caught up with his civilian lawyer, John Henry Browne. I caught him just before he went in to talk to Bales in the holding facility there at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. And Browne seemed really upbeat probably for the first time since he got this case. He's pretty happy about the way things were going.
In the past months ever since he took on this case, he'd been talking about how the Army had a weak case. There wasn't enough physical evidence that the witnesses were in a warzone, kind of playing down the strength of the Army's hand. But now that he has a deal, he says this deal is the best they could hope for.
SIEGEL: Well, Martin, go over the details of this case. Sergeant Bales is accused of a vicious assault on two villages near his base in southern Afghanistan.
KASTE: Yeah, it was the kind of case that really makes your blood run cold when you hear about it. Witnesses said that Bales had been up late with some fellow soldiers, watching movie and drinking, in violation of regulations. And then at some point in the middle of the night, he slipped out of the wire of this forward operating post where he'd been based. And he attacked two little villages - simple mud-walled houses, little huts - attacked families as they slept. Most of the victims - the people who were killed were women and children. Families were decimated. Some of the bodies apparently were burned.
And a lot of these details come to us directly from the witnesses because the Army last November set up a live video link for pretrial hearing. And we heard these stories from children, including one 8-year-old Afghani girl who'd been shot in the head and survived, talking about this man in uniform showing up in the middle of the night with a gun to kill people. So it's - we have a very vivid portrait.
SIEGEL: And confronted with all that, what defense did Bales' legal team offer?
KASTE: We'll, they've been talking about - suggesting that there was some kind of a mental illness or mental deficiency defense of some kind. They talked about a concussion that Bales had suffered. They also talked about stress. I mean, he had been really through the wars. He'd been to Iraq three times. This was his fourth tour of duty now in Afghanistan. He has a two small children of his own. He's married. And he'd been at war for a long time.
I think there's some sympathy in military circles for just the amount of stress soldiers like him are under. But most experts - military legal experts - thought that there really wasn't enough to put together something that would get panel of superior officers would be on that jury to basically accept that that was an excuse for murder.
SIEGEL: So if his plea is accepted, a sentencing hearing will happen later this year. What are the possibilities in the way we sentence?
KASTE: Well, if the judge is satisfied here that Bales has told the full story, which he has to do for this plea to work - and in the past, his lawyers have said he has a faulty memory or hazy memory of what happened. But if he's satisfied to the judge, then he's looking at a sentencing trial in September, which would basically decide between life in prison with the possibility of parole or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Martin.
KASTE: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Martin Kaste, who's been covering the story of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the soldier accused of murdering 16 civilians in Afghanistan. Bales is now changing his plea to guilty. And in doing so, he will avoid the death penalty. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.