SEATTLE — When Staff Sgt. Robert Bales admitted to murdering 16 Afghan civilians including several children, he still couldn’t tell the judge why.
Bales did take responsibility for the murders in exchange for a plea deal that spares him the death penalty. But when he’s sentenced, his lawyers will bring up his mental status at the time of the killings.
“I think any panel can understand that Sgt. Bales is a person who would not have done this but for a set of conditions,” Emma Scanlan, Bales’ attorney, said.
Scanlan points to Bales’ four war zone deployments, a brain injury in combat, and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress. That’s what the jury will hear about and it could give the soldier a chance at life with parole, meaning he could be out of prison in 10 years.
“They can understand that and they can decide that he deserves a chance,” Scanlan said. “It’s only a chance, but he deserves a chance to potentially someday be reunited with his family.”
With more than 200,000 soldiers diagnosed with PTSD, lawyers expect a lot more criminal cases using PTSD as a defense.
“It’s not a go-to defense, it’s the reality of having served our country,” Stephen Carpenter, a military defense lawyer, said.
Soldiers with PTSD can suffer flashbacks and outbursts of anger and violence.
On the same day Sgt. Bales admitted to the Afghan murders, an Iraq War vet in Spokane was being arraigned for murder. Jason Hart is accused of killing his girlfriend and placing her body in a tub full of acid.
His estranged wife said he had been diagnosed with PTSD and it will likely be used as part of his defense. It’s likely he won’t be the last to use PTSD as a defense.
“People who spend time outside the military before they enter, maybe they were good people,” Carpenter said. “And then as a result of them going down range they saw some horrible things, they developed PTSD, so it’s within that context that I think this issue will be played out over and over again.”