JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- A military prosecutor on Monday laid out a chillingly flat recitation of the government's case against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the Army officer who is accused of murdering 16 civilians this year in Afghanistan, as a pretrial hearing began in one of the nation's worst war crimes cases in decades.
"He was lucid, coherent and responsive," Lt. Col. Joseph Morse, the Army prosecutor, told the court in describing Sergeant Bales's demeanor on arriving back at an Army post in Kandahar Province with blood on his clothes that, the prosecutor said, had seeped all the way through to the sergeant's underwear.
Local families in a poor area with no electricity, Colonel Morse said, awoke early on March 11 to find a figure cloaked in darkness inside their homes, firing a weapon with apparent intent to kill. Children were shot through the thighs or in the head, he said. In one place, 11 bodies -- mostly women and children, the prosecutor said -- were "put in a pile and put on fire."
Sergeant Bales, 39, an 11-year-military veteran, could face the death penalty if found guilty of the most serious charges, and the decision is specifically made to advance the case as a capital crime.
The hearing that began Monday, here at the base where Sergeant Bales was stationed, about an hour south of Seattle, was the first step in the military justice process. An Article 32 Investigation, as it is called, is roughly the equivalent of a grand jury inquiry in civilian law, aimed at determining whether sufficient evidence exists to continue to a full court-martial.
At least 35 witnesses are expected to testify, some through live video uplink from Afghanistan, over the investigation, which could last two weeks or more. The presiding officer, Col. Lee Deneke, will then make his recommendation to superiors as to the next steps, including the question of whether the death penalty should be considered, as the prosecution has requested.
Sergeant Bales's defense lawyers on Monday reserved their opening comment for later.
If the Kandahar killings sent a shudder through U.S.-Afghan relations and through the military itself this spring as the horror of the case emerged, it seemed clear from the day's opening testimony -- and the sharp cross-examination by Sergeant Bales's defense team -- that the Article 32 hearing itself could continue the aftershocks.
One of the first witnesses, for example, Cpl. David Godwin, testifying under immunity from prosecution, told the court he had violated Army rules on the night of the killings by drinking alcohol with Sergeant Bales and another soldier.
Under direct examination by prosecutors, Corporal Godwin said the three had a couple of drinks -- Jack Daniel's, concealed in a water bottle -- in one of the soldier's rooms while watching a movie, "Man on Fire," about a former intelligence operative who seeks violent revenge after a girl's kidnapping. Using a word that Colonel Morse had used in outlining the case, Corporal Godwin repeatedly said that Sergeant Bales was "coherent," and that neither Sergeant Bales nor the other soldier, as far as Corporal Godwin could tell, was intoxicated.
One of Sergeant Bales's defense lawyers, Emma Scanlan, suggested in her cross-examination that Corporal Godwin underestimated the alcohol use and misread Sergeant Bales's state of mind when the sergeant returned to camp in bloody clothes just before 5 a.m. Under her questioning, Corporal Godwin admitted that he had exchanged perhaps five or six sentences with Sergeant Bales outside the camp gate at the sergeant's return, as the unit hurried to respond to reports of civilian casualties and a missing soldier.
That brief exchange, she said, is the "basis of saying he was coherent." Sergeant Bales was also wearing a cape when he returned to the unit, and Ms. Scanlan's questions suggested that this also indicated something odd.
"Is that normal behavior?" she asked the witness.
"No," Corporal Godwin said.
"Do you wear a cape?" she asked.
"No," he said.
Another of Sergeant Bales's lawyers, John Henry Browne, has said Sergeant Bales suffered post-traumatic stress. Mr. Browne, who was en route to Afghanistan to be there for witness testimony this week, said in an interview over the weekend that issues of Sergeant Bales's hospitalizations, for a foot wound and a head wound, and his previous deployments -- three in Iraq, the fourth in Afghanistan -- would also be explored in the Article 32 inquiry.
In the charge sheet that is the basis for the hearing, Sergeant Bales faces 16 counts of murder with premeditation, six counts of attempted murder with premeditation, six counts of assault, as well as other charges of impeding the investigation, use and possession of steroids and the consumption of alcohol, which is forbidden to Army soldiers in Afghanistan.
Colonel Morse, the prosecutor, said in his remarks that the blood on Sergeant Bales's clothes forensically matched the blood of some of the victims, and Sergeant Bales's own words, documented at the time, would show a "chilling premeditation."
But witnesses talked about the strangeness they saw that night.
One of them, a soldier in the unit, Sgt. First Class Clayton Blackshear, described Sergeant Bales at one point in the evening as "ghostlike." Then he shrugged. "There's no word in the English language," he said.nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.