By msnbc.com news services
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales Friday was charged Friday with 17 counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder, along with other charges, in connection with a shooting rampage in two southern Afghanistan villages that shocked Americans back home and further roiled U.S.-Afghan relations.
The charges come almost two weeks after the massacre in which Bales allegedly left his base in the early morning hours and shot Afghan civilians, including women and nine children, while they slept in their beds, then burned some of the bodies.
It was the worst allegation of civilian killings by an American and has severely strained U.S.-Afghan ties at a critical time in the decade-old war.
Bales was read the charges on Friday at the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he has been held since being flown from Afghanistan last week, a U.S. official said.
Bales’ civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, said Friday without commenting on the specific charges that he believes the government will have a hard time proving its case and that at some stage in the prosecution his client’s mental state will be an important issue.
Death toll in Afghanistan massacre climbs to 17
Col. Gary Kolb, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, says Bales was also charged Friday with six counts of attempted murder and six counts of assault.
The decision to charge him with premeditated murder suggestst hat prosecutors plan to argue that he consciously conceived the killings. A military legal official for U.S. forces in Afghanistan who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the case, noted that premeditated murder is not something that has to have been contemplated for a long time.
The 38-year-old soldier and father of two, whose home is in Bonney Lake, Wash., faces trial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but it could be months before any public hearing.
Legal jurisdiction in the Bales case is expected to be switched Friday from U.S. Forces-Afghanistan in Kabul to Bales’ home base of Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash., U.S. officials said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said Bales could face the death penalty if he is convicted of murder, but it is unlikely. The U.S. military has not executed a service member since 1961. Legal experts say Bales could face a lengthy prison sentence if convicted.