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Prosecutor: Afghanistan massacre case faced hurdles

Nov. 7, 2013 - 05:49PM   |  
Jay Morse
Military prosecutor Army Lt. Col. Jay Morse speaks Nov. 7 to a class at the SMU Dedman School of Law in Dallas. (LM Otero / AP)
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DALLAS — When the soldier who massacred 16 Afghan civilians was sentenced to life in prison without parole, many of his victims in the courtroom were furious. They wanted Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales executed.

Lt. Col. Jay Morse, the lead prosecutor, told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday that the case faced significant hurdles, from limited access to the crime scene to a drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan, which made a quick resolution ideal.

Still, to a prosecutor whose goal was to try to satisfy Bales’ victims, their reaction was difficult, but understandable.

“I don’t think they were completely satisfied,” Morse said. “I don’t know that they would have been completely satisfied without literally seeing Sgt. Bales executed.”

Bales admitted to carrying out a March 2012 massacre in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. He walked through remote mud-walled compounds late at night and gunned down residents, shooting 22 people, many of them women and children. Some were in bed.

Bales’ guilty plea in August allowed him to avoid the death penalty. But Afghan victims and relatives flown to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., for the proceedings were upset.

“I saw his mother trying to cry, but at least she can go visit him,” said Hajji Mohammad Naim, who was shot in the neck. “What about us? Our family members are actually 6 feet under.”

But Morse on Thursday pointed to several complicating factors.

It took Army investigators about three weeks to reach the crime scene due to unrest in the region. The delay could have brought into question the reliability of the evidence collected, Morse said.

Access to witnesses in Afghanistan was also uncertain because American troops are pulling out of the country. Similarly high-profile cases have stretched on for three years or longer, and Morse said he wasn’t sure if he could guarantee the presence of witnesses at a trial in 2014 or later.

The Bales case has drawn comparisons to that of the man convicted in the 2009 massacre at Fort, Hood, Texas, that killed 13 people. Maj. Nidal Hasan was convicted just an hour after Bales was sentenced. Hasan was eventually sentenced to death.

But Morse said several key differences complicate any comparison between the Hasan and Bales cases. The building where Hasan opened fire was sealed off almost immediately after the shooting until trial, and dozens of his victims were available to testify.

Capital cases in the military often face more delays than those in civilian courts, though Morse said that did not factor into his thinking. No active-duty soldier has been executed since 1961, and the majority of death sentences in the last three decades have been reversed or stayed.

Agreeing to forego the death penalty allowed the Army to “go quickly and get a result where we can focus on the sentencing,” Morse said Thursday.

When he was assigned the Bales case, Morse wrote down three goals: to convict Bales, to satisfy Bales’ victims or leave them with an understanding of the legal process, and to avoid any major mistakes.

“I didn’t want to tie myself to a specific sentence because, as a prosecutor, that’s not in my hands,” Morse said. “What is in my hands is I argue the best possible case I can.”

And in the end, Morse feels he did.

“I wanted people to understand how important it was to us to make sure that we treated this appropriately,” Morse said. He added: “I’m comfortable with the result. I’m happy with the result.”

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