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Sgt. Bales Charged With 17 Counts Of Murder; Could Get Death Penalty

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been officially been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder for the March 11 killings of unarmed men, women and children in Southern Afghanistan, The Associated Press just reported from Kabul.

It adds that "premeditated murder is a capital offense and if convicted, Bales could be sentenced to death."

The 38-year-old soldier also faces six charges of attempted murder and six counts of assault. He is currently being held at Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas.

As the AP notes, the massacre "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."

Update at 3:07 p.m. ET. 'Hard Time Proving Its Case':

Echoing what he told NPR yesterday, Bales' civilian attorney John Henry Browne told MSNBC "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."

Yesterday, Browne told NPR's Martin Kaste that in this case, "there's no traditional crime scene, there's no DNA. There's no ballistics. We don't know of the validity of any eyewitnesses. It's really going to be a very interesting case in the sense of what the government can prove."

Update at 3:03 p.m. ET. The Process Explained:

The military's investigative process is quite different from the civil system. If you want a primer on the system, The Los Angeles Times has put one together.

Update at 2:47 p.m. ET. Consciously Conceived Of Killings:

The Seattle Times says the charge of premeditated murder gives us a hint as to how the government will try to prosecute Bales:

"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."

According to the ISAF press release, if Bales is convicted of premeditated murder he could face the death penalty with a "mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment for life with eligibility for parole."

The Times adds:

"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."

Update at 2:40 p.m. ET. What's Next?

The Army will now commence an Article 32 hearing, which is the military equivalent of a grand jury. An investigating officer will submit a recommendation on whether there is sufficient evidence to move forward with a general court-martial.

According to an International Security Assistance Force press release, the proceedings will take place at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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