Lawyers for Soldier Question Lone Gunman Claim

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- A defense lawyer for Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales pressed witnesses on Saturday about whether more than one soldier might have been involved in the killings of 16 Afghan civilians earlier this year.

A 15-year-old boy named Rafiullah, for example, speaking through a translator, described being shot in the legs on the morning of March 11 in Kandahar Province. Under questioning by a prosecutor, Rafiullah said he saw only one gunman that night, who shot him, his sister and his grandmother one after another with a pistol.

Did he remember telling an interviewer from the defense team just last month that he had seen "many soldiers," Sergeant Bales's lead defense lawyer, John Henry Browne, asked.

"There might have been some soldiers," the boy answered. "We were scared."

The government, in a case that has unfolded here in a pretrial evidentiary hearing that began on Monday, claims that Sergeant Bales acted alone when he walked away from his remote outpost in southern Afghanistan and shot and stabbed members of several families in a nighttime ambush. At least nine of the people he is accused of killing were children, and others were women. After the victims were shot, some of the bodies were dragged into a pile and burned.

Prosecutors said the killings, the deadliest war crime attributed to an American soldier in decades, might have been in response to a fellow soldier's losing a leg to a bomb several days earlier, or because of the alcohol that witnesses have said Sergeant Bales drank earlier that evening or the steroids that an investigator testified were found in his bloodstream.

But defense lawyers have suggested in their questioning of witnesses in the hearings -- intended to establish whether there is enough evidence to bring him before a court-martial -- that the government's account is too tidy. They have reminded witnesses of words like "raid" that were used in the earlier accounts of the attack, and asked others about reports of hearing helicopters.

Sergeant Bales, 39, a noncommissioned officer who has served 11 years in the Army, with three tours in Iraq before his deployment last year to Afghanistan, has not entered a plea, and could face the death penalty if the hearing leads to a court-martial prosecuted as a capital case. To accommodate witnesses in Afghanistan, and the 12-and-a-half-hour time difference, the court scheduled night sessions on Friday and Saturday, with testimony through cameras and uplinks in Afghanistan and here at Lewis-McChord.

One 7-year-old girl who was shot in the leg testified on Saturday night that she saw many lights in the fields around her home around the time a gunman came in firing.

"Almost like daylight," said the girl, named Robina, under questioning by Mr. Browne, who called her as a defense witness.

Were they individual lights, he asked, "like a helmet?"

"Too many lights," the girl responded.

How the uncertainty and variability of witness accounts -- common in the chaotic context of a crime scene, as the police have known for generations -- might influence the findings by the investigating officer in the hearings, Col. Lee Deneke, cannot be known until he files his report after the evidentiary process.

But for the defense and the prosecution both, the small details and nuances are everything. The attacks in Kandahar did not create a mystery whodunit with a long search for a suspect, nor was a buried story of dark secrets ferreted out afterward, like say the My Lai massacre in 1968 during the Vietnam War, which only came to light much later. The killings immediately exploded into the international consciousness, as the villagers in Kandahar responded with rage, and the Army announced the immediate arrest of one of its own.

But no witnesses so far have specifically been able to point to Sergeant Bales as the killer. They mostly saw an American with a gun firing in darkness, leaving an opening for the defense, and an obligation by the prosecution, to challenge or bolster at every opportunity the notion of a lone, rogue soldier.

Sometimes the results are complicated. The 15-year-old shooting victim, Rafiullah, who testified Saturday night, was specifically asked by Maj. John Riesenberg, one of the prosecutors, how many people were there when the shooting started.

"How many Americans did you see?" Major Riesenberg asked.

"I just saw one," the boy answered. But then he quickly added: "There might have been more -- I just saw one."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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