Army sergeant pleads guilty in Afghan killings

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales

(CNN) – Hoping to avoid a death sentence, a U.S. Army sergeant entered guilty pleas to 16 counts of murder and several other charges Wednesday in connection with a 2012 massacre of Afghan civilians.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was accused of slipping away from his outpost in southern Afghanistan and going on a house-to-house rampage in two villages before turning himself in to his commanders. The killings strained already tense ties between American troops and their Afghan allies and intensified a debate about whether to speed up the planned withdrawal of U.S. combat troops.

Bales entered the pleas at a hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, outside Tacoma, Washington. In addition to the premeditated murder counts, he pleaded guilty to six counts of attempted murder, seven counts of assault and the use of illicit steroids and alcohol. He pleaded not guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice, however.

Bales’ lawyer, John Henry Browne, said last week that Bales intended to plead guilty to the killings in exchange for elimination of the death penalty as a possible punishment. The pleas must be reviewed by a military judge and a commanding general before being accepted, said Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield, a military spokesman.

Browne said last week that Special Operations troops assigned to the Kandahar outpost “pumped” his client with the substances, and that he will raise the issue in a penalty phase to determine whether Bales will have a chance at parole.

Bales is a member of the Army’s 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, an element of the 2nd Infantry Division. Browne has previously said the service made a mistake in assigning Bales to another combat tour despite evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury suffered during a combat tour in Iraq.

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