Statements made by a US Army sergeant when he surrendered after a two-village killing spree in southern Afghanistan suggest he knew what he was doing on the night 16 civilians were massacred, prosecutors said.
One of the worst atrocities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the March 11 attack, prompted the US to halt combat operations for days in the face of protests, and military investigators couldn’t reach the crime scenes for a month.
A medic saw Staff Sergeant Robert Bales covered in blood after the attacks and knew from the pattern of the staining it wasn’t his own. He asked where it came from and where he’d been.
Bales shrugged, the medic, Sergeant 1st Class James Stillwell, testified Tuesday.
‘‘If I tell you, you guys will have to testify against me,’’ Stillwell quoted him as saying.
That was one of many statements attributed to Bales that suggest he knew he was responsible, prosecutors said.
The remarks, offered by fellow soldiers testifying for the US government Monday and Tuesday, could pose a high hurdle for defence lawyers who have indicated that Bales’ mental health will be a big part of their case.
The testimony is part of a preliminary hearing being held to help determine whether the case goes to a court martial.
Defence lawyers have noted that Bales was serving his fourth deployment, and had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a concussive head injury in Iraq.
The 39-year-old Bales faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder in the March 11 attack on the villages of Balandi and Alkozai, which counted nine children among its victims.
A prosecutor’s opening statement and witness testimony Monday suggested Bales spent the evening before the massacre at his remote outpost of Camp Belambay with two other soldiers, watching a movie about revenge killings, sharing contraband whiskey from a plastic bottle and discussing an attack that cost one of their comrades his leg.
Within hours, a cape-wearing Bales slipped away from the post and embarked on a killing spree of his own, said the prosecutor, Lieutenant Colonel Jay Morse.
He attacked one village before returning to Belambay to wake a colleague and report what he’d done.
The colleague testified that he didn’t believe Bales and went back to sleep.
Bales headed out again, Morse said, and attacked the second village, bringing his death toll to 16 before returning once again before dawn, bloody and incredulous that his comrades ordered him to surrender his weapons.
His return to the base was captured on surveillance video, Morse said.
Soldiers testified that after being taken into custody, Bales told them, ‘‘I thought I was doing the right thing.’’
‘‘It’s bad, it’s really bad,’’ he reportedly added.
And Stillwell, the medic, said Bales told him that the soldiers at Camp Belambay would appreciate his actions once the fighting season ramped up: ‘‘You guys are going to thank me come June.’’
At another point, Bales remarked: ‘‘I guess four was too many’’ - an apparent reference to the number of family compounds in the attacked villages, Morse said Monday.
Bales was largely calm and compliant when he turned himself in following the massacre, a few soldiers testified Tuesday.
He followed orders and sometimes sat with his head in his hands, as though the magnitude of what he had done was sinking in, one said.
At one point, Bales made a joke - pointing his finger, in the shape of a gun, at two soldiers guarding him - in what they took as a failed effort to ease the tension.
But Bales also deliberately mangled his laptop, said two soldiers assigned to guard him as he gathered his things.
One of them, Sergeant Ross O’Rourke, testified that he removed the laptop from Bales’ rucksack after the defendant told him he didn’t want to take it with him.
O’Rourke said Bales then grabbed the computer and folded the screen back, breaking it.
That didn’t damage the hard drive, O’Rourke said, and investigators still could have retrieved information from the computer.
O’Rourke didn’t testify about what information might have been uncovered.
On Monday, Corporal David Godwin testified that Bales asked him to bleach his blood-soaked clothes.
Bales has not entered a plea, and is not expected to testify.
His attorneys, who did not give an opening statement, have not discussed the evidence, but say Bales has post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered a concussive head injury during a prior deployment to Iraq.
Bales has not participated in a medical evaluation known as a ‘‘sanity board,’’ as his lawyers have objected to having him meet with Army doctors outside their presence.
Bales’ lawyers called their first witness Tuesday, a soldier who bagged the blood-soaked clothes Bales had been wearing as evidence.
The testimony focused primarily on how the evidence was handled.