Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, left, 1st platoon sergeant, Blackhorse Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division participates in an August 2011 exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was charged Friday with 17 counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder, along with other charges, in connection with a shooting rampage in two southern Afghanistan villages that shocked Americans back home and further roiled U.S.-Afghan relations.
The charges come almost two weeks after the massacre in which Bales allegedly left his base in the early morning hours and shot Afghan civilians, including women and nine children, while they slept in their beds, then burned some of the bodies.
It was the worst allegation of civilian killings by an American and has severely strained U.S.-Afghan ties at a critical time in the decade-old war.
Bales was read the charges on Friday at the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he has been held since being flown from Afghanistan last week, a U.S. official said.
Bales' civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, said Friday without commenting on the specific charges that he believes the government will have a hard time proving its case and that at some stage in the prosecution his client's mental state will be an important issue.
Col. Gary Kolb, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, says Bales was also charged Friday with six counts of attempted murder and six counts of assault.
The decision to charge him with premeditated murder suggests that prosecutors plan to argue that he consciously conceived the killings. A military legal official for U.S. forces in Afghanistan who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the case, noted that premeditated murder is not something that has to have been contemplated for a long time.
Criminal charges including 17 counts of murder and six counts of assault have been brought against Sgt. Robert Bales for alleged actions in Afghanistan. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports this is the first step toward the eventual filing of charges.
“These are unsurprising charges, predictable charges. I would have thought there would have been a few more lesser charges because no prosecutor likes to lose his principal charge and see the individual walk so usually some lesser offenses are charged as well,” Gary Solis, former head of the Marine Corps’ Military Law Branch and current adjunct professor of law at Georgetown Law School, told msnbc.com.
“But what will really be significant is when the charges are referred to trial by the convening authority … because when they are referred, they will either be referred as capital or not. … If referred capital, that will change the complexion of the case.”
A senior U.S. official tells NBC News that Bales is likely to face lesser charges such as dereliction of duty and disobeying a lawful order.
The 38-year-old soldier and father of two, whose home is in Bonney Lake, Wash., faces trial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but it could be months before any public hearing.
Legal jurisdiction in the Bales case is expected to be switched Friday from U.S. Forces-Afghanistan in Kabul to Bales' home base of Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash., U.S. officials said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said Bales could face the death penalty if he is convicted of murder, but it is unlikely. The U.S. military has not executed a service member since 1961. Legal experts say Bales could face a lengthy prison sentence if convicted.
The maximum punishment for a premeditated murder conviction is death, dishonorable discharge from the armed forces, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade and total forfeiture of pay and allowances, Kolb said. The mandatory minimum sentence is life imprisonment with the chance of parole.
Retired Army Colonel and NBC military analyst Jack Jacobs examines the concerns set forth by the attorney for Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the soldier who was charged Friday with 17 counts of murder.
Legal experts have said the death penalty would be unlikely in the case. The military hasn't executed a service member since 1961 when an Army ammunition handler was hanged for raping an 11-year-old girl in Austria. None of the six men currently on death row at Fort Leavenworth was convicted for atrocities against foreign civilians.
“This is just the first step in what’s going to be a very long process and it still remains to be seen whether this is actually going to be a death penalty case or not,” Daniel Conway, a lawyer and former Marine staff sergeant who has been involved in battlefield investigations in Iraq and Afghanistan of alleged crimes by U.S. soldiers, told msnbc.com. “The basic idea here is that you can’t hold somebody in jail forever without charging them, so they’ve had to take this first step here.”
The charging document did not provide details about the killings, leaving the timeline unclear. The dead bodies were found in Balandi and Alkozai villages — one north and one south of the base.
Members of the Afghan delegation investigating the killings said one Afghan guard working from midnight to 2 a.m. saw a U.S. soldier return to the base around 1:30 a.m. Another Afghan soldier who replaced the first and worked until 4 a.m. said he saw a U.S. soldier leaving the base at 2:30 a.m. It's unknown whether the Afghan guards saw the same U.S. soldier. If the gunman acted alone, information from the Afghan guards would suggest that he returned to base in between the shooting sprees.
It also is not known whether the suspect used grenades, Kolb said. The grenade launcher attachment is added to the standard issue M-4 rifle for some soldiers but not all, he said. Bales was assigned to provide force protection at the base.
Msnbc.com's Miranda Leitsinger and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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