Soldier accused in Afghan killings on his way to Kansas base

Posted at 5:11 PM, Mar 16, 2012
and last updated 2012-03-16 19:13:35-04

SEATTLE (CNN) — The attorney for an American soldier accused of killing 16 Afghans raised issues of stress and multiple deployments Friday that hinted at a possible defense strategy.

Even as John Henry Browne spoke, his client was on his way to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Though the soldier has not been identified publicly by the military, a senior defense official and a military source identified him as Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.

The soldier had been in protective custody in Kuwait and was expected to arrive Friday evening at Fort Leavenworth, Browne said.

The civilian attorney said he spoke Thursday with his client, who seemed distant, like a deer in the headlights. Browne said their conversation was short because he did not trust that the phone lines were secure.

Browne said he was wary of why the soldier had been deployed to Afghanistan after having already served three tours in Iraq, where he had suffered mental and physical injury.

The soldier lost part of a foot in Iraq and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Browne said the screening for the concussion was minimal. The soldier was told that his brigade would not deploy again but that changed suddenly and he arrived at the base in Kandahar province not too long ago.

“I am confused why they would send him back to Afghanistan,” Browne said. “There was no ‘maybe-he-shouldn’t-go’ discussion.”

The soldier had not wanted to deploy to Afghanistan, Browne said, citing conversations with the soldier’s family.

“He was told that he was not going to be redeployed,” Browne said. “The family was counting on him not being redeployed. I think it would be fair to say he and the family were not happy that he was going back.”

Browne, a well-known Seattle defense attorney, was asked by the soldier’s family to represent him. He said he had reservations about taking on the case, given security concerns.

In his 30 years as a lawyer, Browne has taken on several high-profile cases, including that of serial killer Ted Bundy and the so-called Barefoot Bandit.

In describing his latest client, Browne painted a picture of a decorated, career soldier who joined the military after the 2001 terrorist attacks and had spent his Army life at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington. Browne called him a devoted husband and father to his two young children who never made any derogatory remarks about Muslims or Afghans.

Browne said he was offended by media reports that marital discord played a role in the events that unfolded in Kandahar province villages near the small combat outpost where the soldier was stationed. He said those reports were “nonsense.”

He said he did not know whether alcohol may have been involved, as reported by The New York Times, but imagined that stress was a factor. “For God’s sake, who is not going to be under stress in Afghanistan in a small camp where there is 20 people in the middle of nowhere?” Browne asked.

He also said that, the day before the slayings, another soldier on that base had his leg shot off in front of the suspect.

“That affected the whole base,” Browne said.

The suspect has not been formally charged.

Charges could come within weeks in what Browne called more of a political case than a legal one.

“This is an international event, and it’s a very touchy event for our government and for other governments,” he said.

“It’s not just a normal criminal case that we deal with, and we understand that. We understand our government’s concern about it, and we certainly understand the concern of Afghanistan and its people. This (is) a pretty huge case from the standpoint of ramifications.”

Thomas Kenniff, a former judge advocate in the military’s legal system, said Browne’s decision to speak out about the case this early — before even having met with his client — was not a good idea.

“You don’t want to say anything at this point where you’re going to overcommit to one particular defense or not,” Kenniff said.

“Maybe alcohol is going to play a big part in this case as part of establishing a defense, as part of establishing a contributing factor to (post-traumatic stress) or the command environment in theater that condoned these sort of excesses that may have contributed to this tragic offense,” he said.

The soldier is accused of leaving the remote outpost of Camp Belambay on foot early Sunday and heading to neighboring villages in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province.

In the villages, the soldier opened fire, killing nine children, three women and four men, witnesses and Afghan authorities said. The U.S. military has not confirmed the number of casualties.

The military had withheld the soldier’s identity out of possible fear of retaliation, and the soldier’s family has been moved on to Lewis-McChord, Browne said.

“There is great concern about their security,” he said.

Browne also confirmed reports the soldier could face the death penalty.

“There is a discussion of the death penalty, understandably, I think, in this situation, which makes us very nervousm,” he said. “It’s certainly not off the table at this point. Our hope is that maybe it will be.”

“We don’t know anything about (his) state of mind. We don’t know anything about the facts of the case, and whether they can prove what he’s accused of.”

By the CNN Wire Staff.
CNN’s Casey Wian, Moni Basu and Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.
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