TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A jury of six military personnel was impaneled on Tuesday for the sentencing of a decorated U.S. soldier who pleaded guilty in June to killing 16 Afghan civilians in two nighttime forays from his Army post last year, an Army spokeswoman said.
Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has admitted to gunning down the villagers, mostly women and children, in attacks on their family compounds in Kandahar province in March 2012.
In exchange for his guilty plea, Bales will be spared the death penalty. The jury will determine whether he will spend the rest of his natural life in prison or be eligible for the possibility of parole after 20 years.
The jury is evenly split between commissioned and non-commissioned officers ranging in rank from master sergeant to colonel, according to Army spokeswoman Major Allison Aguilar. Four potential jurors were dismissed from an initial jury pool of 10.
Army prosecutors have said Bales acted alone and with chilling premeditation when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his base twice in the night, returning in the middle of his rampage to tell a fellow soldier: “I just shot up some people.”
The shootings marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on a rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and further eroded strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in that country.
Defense attorneys said on Monday that they would argue during the sentencing hearing that post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury were factors in the killings, while prosecutors hoped to show Bales had engaged in a pattern of bad behavior that predated his multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The proceedings at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington are expected to last at least a week.
Prosecutors have said they intend to play for jurors taped telephone conversations between an incarcerated Bales and his wife, Kari, laughing about the charges leveled against him and discussing a possible book deal for her.
Defense lawyers said those discussions and others that prosecutors want to use were taken out of context.
The military judge presiding over the case said on Monday that the complete phone conversations could be played for the jury. On Tuesday he ruled that extended portions of the phone conversations could be played.
Bales acknowledged the killings upon pleading guilty and told the court there was “not a good reason in this world” for his actions.
Editing by Sharon Bernstein, Steve Gorman and Carol Bishopric