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Army Sgt. Bales to face 'sanity board' in Afghan village massacre case

Peter Millett / Reuters

Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales (L) and Judge Col. Jeffery R. Nance is seen in a courtroom sketch as he is arraigned on 16 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder and seven counts of of assault at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. on Thursday

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, charged with killing 16 Afghan villagers in a pre-dawn rampage in March, will face a sanity board, the judge in the case said Thursday.

In such a mental health review, neutral doctors are charged with evaluating the defendant's mental state at the time of the crime and whether he's competent to stand trial.

Bales , a 39-year-old father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., is accused of slipping away from his remote outpost in Afghanistan on March 11 after drinking with fellow soldiers, and killing 16 people, including nine children, in two nearby villages.

Prosecutors say Bales acted alone and with "chilling premeditation" when he visited the villages in the dark, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher. He reportedly returned to his base between his visits to the two sites and told a fellow soldier: "I just shot up some people."

Military judge Col. Jeffrey Nance, hearing the case at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., said he would order the official review of the soldier’s mental health after prosecutors argued that without it, the defense should not be allowed to raise mental health issues as mitigating factors.  

Bales appeared in court wearing green military dress, entered his deferred plea through one of his defense attorneys, who also waived reading of charges against Bales, Reuters reported.

The soldier faces 16 murder charges, as well as other charges, including attempted murder, assault and drug and alcohol charges.

On Thursday, when asked if he understood that his conviction could result in the death penalty, Bales answered, "Sir, yes sir."

In previous pre-trial hearings, defense attorneys for Bales have raised a number of mental health factors that may have affected Bales — including repeated deployments, a traumatic brain injury and the use drugs provided by the military.

Prosecutors argued that in the absence of an outside review, the defense should be barred from presenting mental health arguments, The Associated Press reported.

"An accused simply cannot be allowed to claim a lack of mental responsibility through the introduction of expert testimony from his own doctors, while at the same time leaving the government with no ability to overcome its burden of proof because its doctors have been precluded from conducting any examination of the very matters in dispute," Maj. Robert Stelle wrote in a Jan. 3 motion obtained by the AP.

Up to now, defense attorneys have refused to let Bales take part in the sanity board, objecting to the terms set out.

However, in a reply to the government's motion, defense attorney Emma Scanlan wrote Tuesday that Bales will participate — as long as only certain information about the results are forwarded to government prosecutors. They say findings about Bale’s state of mind at the time of the attacks should not be provided to prosecutors until Bales' defense team officially gives notice that it will pursue mental-health defense.

"There is no authority for the bizarre proposition that the accused has to submit to a compelled mental health examination before he gives notice of a mental defense," Scanlan.

The judge said conditions for the sanity board will be worked out later.

Related reports from NBC News

Bales case echoes loudly for ex-soldiers on hotline for vets
Witness: Sgt. Bales, accused of Afghan massacre, was deemed a top soldier
Witnesses to describe massacre at Sgt. Bales hearing