By Chuck Johnston and Greg Botelho
(CNN) — A U.S. Army staff sergeant who admitted gunning down 16 civilians last year in Afghanistan was sentenced Friday to life in prison without parole, a U.S. military spokesman said.
The sentence was not entirely unexpected, given that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ decision in June to plead guilty to more than 30 criminal charges, including 16 premeditated murder counts, spared him the prospect of a death sentence. He also pleaded guilty on charges related to illicit steroid and alcohol use.
But it remained up to a jury of four officers and two enlisted personnel to decide whether Bales should be eligible for parole.
They decided Friday he is not, according to Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield with Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, meaning the 39-year-old will spend the rest of his life in a military prison.
Well before dawn on March 11, 2012, Bales slipped off from remote Camp Belambay in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province and entered one nearby village and then, after a brief return to the base, went to another village.
He left a trail of blood and gore in both villages, including nine children among the dead. Eleven of the victims came from the same family. Witnesses claimed that the U.S. soldier dragged some bodies of his victims’ outside and set them ablaze.
The horror ended when Bales returned to Camp Belambay and turned himself in.
In the subsequent hours and days, some spoke highly about Bales, such as attorney Emma Scanlan who described him as a “devoted husband, father and dedicated member of the armed service.”
The massacre quickly spurred outrage in Afghanistan and around the world.
The Taliban vowed to retaliate “by killing and beheading Americans anywhere in the country.” Afghan President Hamid Karzai suggested, after meeting with villagers who’d seen the carnage and wanted Bales to be tried there to “heal our broken hearts,” that the incident had put U.S.-Afghan relations at a breaking point.
“It is by all means the end of the rope here,” Karzai said then. “The end of the rope that nobody can afford such luxuries anymore.”
Bales was identified as the culprit days later and eventually put in solitary confinement at the U.S. military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The military announced last December that Bales faced a court-martial.
The Army soldier spoke at this week’s sentencing, calling what he’d done “an act of cowardice.”
“I hid behind a mask of Bravado,” Bales said, according to a tweet from court from Drew Mikkelsen of CNN Seattle affiliate KING. Also admitting he’d taken steroids and drank sporadically, the soldier apologized to his victims.
“I am responsible,” he said.
CNN’s Jason Hanna, Dana Ford and Matt Smith contributed to this report.
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