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Soldier accused in Afghan massacre could get death penalty

The Taliban have called for revenge after a 38-year-old U.S. staff sergeant allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians, nine of them children, and then burned many of the bodies. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

The American soldier who is accused in a massacre of 16 villagers near Kandahar could face the death penalty, a military defense attorney said Monday, in one of the worst cases of alleged mass murder by a U.S. service member since the Vietnam War.

U.S. officials have said the soldier acted alone, leaving his base in southern Afghanistan and opening fire on sleeping families. After the massacre, he went back to his base and turned himself in, officials said.

The military will not identify the soldier until charges are filed, Pentagon spokesman William Speaks told msnbc.com Monday. The suspect remains in Afghanistan while the attack is being investigated.

According to military officials, the soldier will be tried within the military justice system, not turned over to Afghan authorities for trial, rebuffing a call from Afghan lawmakers to use their courts.


Report: US soldier who massacred 16 Afghans was from Stryker brigade

The suspect is based out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. He has been identified as a staff sergeant in the Stryker brigade who was taking part in a village stability operation in Afghanistan. He is a 38-year-old married father of two on his first deployment to Afghanistan after three previous deployments in Iraq.

"Based on what we’re hearing I suspect this will be prosecuted as a death penalty case," Philip Cave, a Washington-based military defense attorney told msnbc.com. "You’ve got felony murder, and certainly the number of victims and the circumstances -– very young children as victims –- I think there will be sufficient grounds to move forward as a death penalty case."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the death penalty is a consideration as the military moves to investigate and possibly put the soldier suspected in the mass killings on trial.

The recent killings have brought great sadness to Afghanistan, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called the killings 'unforgiveable.' NBC's Atia Abawi reports.

Before charges are filed, the soldier will likely undergo heavy psychological testing as part of the investigation, Cave said. Then an Article 32 investigation -- a thorough examination of the case with testimony from witnesses -- will be conducted before any court-martial proceedings. If there is a conviction at court-martial with the death penalty imposed and all appeals exhausted, the president of the United States himself would have to sign the death warrant for the soldier's execution

Retired Army platoon Sgt. Jonn Lilyea, a Desert Storm veteran who writes the blog "This Ain’t Hell," told msnbc.com he expects the military to make an example out of the shooter as the case moves through the justice system.

Mourning, anger sweep Afghanistan after massacre

Still, Lilyea cautioned that people should not rush to blame the killings on the soldier’s deployments during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I’d wait to see if he really was in a position that would have affected him in this way," Lilyea said. "But I’m more concerned people will try to use this like they did after Vietnam with the My Lai massacre and taint all combat veterans of this generation as if they were like this one guy." Millions of Americans have served in combat, seen and done "terrible things," but have gone on to normal productive lives after their service, Lilyea pointed out.

Lt. William Calley was convicted of killing 22 villagers in My Lai village in 1968 in an incident that heightened U.S. opposition to the Vietnam War.

If the number of people slain in the attack is confirmed at 16, and the soldier is convicted, the mass killings would be the most of any convicted killer on the military’s death row, which currently has six inmates.

Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, is accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009. He also faces a possible death penalty. His trial was scheduled to begin this month but was delayed until June to allow his defense more time to prepare.

John Bennett was the last U.S. soldier to be executed by the military. He was hanged in 1961 after being convicted of the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old Austrian girl.

Lethal injection is the current method of execution under military justice, according to military defense lawyer Cave.

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, an NBC News military analyst, talks to TODAY's Matt Lauer about what could have possibly driven a U.S. soldier to kill 16 civilians, including nine children, in Afghanistan.

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