Afghan massacre defendant to have court hearing in September

SEATTLE Wed Jul 11, 2012 11:58pm EDT

SEATTLE (Reuters) - The U.S. Army has scheduled a preliminary court hearing in September for the soldier charged with killing 16 Afghan civilians in rampage in March.

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is to have an Article 32 hearing on September 17, Army Lieutenant Colonel Gary Dangerfield said Wednesday. Dangerfield said he did not know where the hearing would be held.

Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is accused of walking off his base under cover of darkness and opening fire on civilians in their homes in at least two villages.

The March 11 mass shooting in Afghanistan's restive Kandahar province eroded already strained U.S.-Afghanistan relations.

Bales is also charged with assault, wrongfully possessing and using steroids, unlawfully consuming alcohol while deployed and destroying a laptop computer.

He is being held at Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, but was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment headquartered at joint base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

Premeditated murder is a capital offense under the U.S. military justice code, so Bales could face the death penalty if convicted.

He would face a mandatory minimum sentence, if convicted, of life imprisonment with eligibility for parole, the military has said.

Seattle-based attorney John Henry Browne, representing Bales, did not immediately return calls by Reuters seeking comment.

An Article 32 hearing is a military justice proceeding that is similar to a civilian grand jury session that determines whether a case gets referred to a court-martial for trial.

(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Christopher Wilson)

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