TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A U.S. army soldier who in June admitted the slaughter of 16 Afghan civilians declined to withdraw his guilty plea in a military court on Monday.
U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales made his decision in advance of legal arguments set to begin Tuesday that will determine whether his life sentence will come with the possibility of parole.
"I'm just trying to do the right thing," he said in a hearing Monday to establish ground rules for the roughly week-long sentencing proceedings.
The judge, Army Colonel Jeffery Nance, asked Bales whether he wanted to withdraw the guilty plea in light of possible misinformation about the length of time before he could be eligible for parole.
Under a plea agreement that accompanied the plea, Bales will be spared the death penalty and could be eligible for parole after 20 years, less time already served and credit for good behavior.
Bales pleaded guilty in June to walking off his base in Afghanistan's Kandahar province before dawn on March 11, 2012, and killing 16 unarmed civilians, most of them women and children, in attacks on their family compounds.
The slayings marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on a single, rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and further strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in that country.
Lawyers for both sides on Monday signaled the arguments that they would make when the sentencing hearing begins.
Bales' attorneys said they would argue that post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury were factors in the killings.
But prosecutors hope to show that he engaged in a pattern of bad behavior that predated his multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Prosecutors also said they intended to play for jurors taped phone conversations between an incarcerated Bales and his wife Kari laughing about the charges leveled against him and discussing a possible book deal for her.
Bales' lawyers argued against playing just snippets of the conversation, saying that the recordings needed to be heard in context. As a result, Nance ruled that the full phone conversations, totaling over two hours, would be played.
The defense also objected to the prosecution calling as an expert witness an Afghan man who has interviewed survivors of the rampage and family members of victims.
The victims "are capable of speaking for themselves," said Emma Scanlan, Bales' civilian attorney.
Nance said he would permit the expert to testify in general terms about how traumatic events and their aftermaths are dealt with in Pashtun culture but would allow "no speculation about the specific impact on these specific victims."
Several survivors are scheduled to speak during the proceedings this week.
Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, acknowledged the killings upon pleading guilty in June and told the court there was "not a good reason in this world" for his actions.
(Reporting and writing by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Steve Gorman, Paul Simao and Sharon Bernstein)
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