Death penalty for Staff Sgt. Bales? Not likely.

(Edited from AP) — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the death penalty is possible if a U.S. military court finds an Army staff sergeant guilty of gunning down Afghan children and family members. But it isn’t likely.

(Edited from AP) — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the death penalty is possible if a U.S. military court finds an Army staff sergeant guilty of gunning down Afghan children and family members. But it isn’t likely.


History shows that the U.S. military system is slow to convict Americans, particularly service members, of alleged war crimes. And when a punishment is imposed, it can range anywhere from life in prison all the way down to house arrest. Other factors can seem to play more of a role than the crime itself.


In the case of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the suspect in the March 11 Kandahar shootings, legal experts say the 38-year-old married father of two young children could face a lengthy prison sentence if convicted of the crime, which has threatened U.S.-Afghan relations. But on his fourth combat tour and with a head injury on his record – the sergeant remembers little about that night, Bales’ lawyer says – he might well be shown some leniency by the military jury, even if convicted.


“Political pressure is going to drive the push for the death penalty. Doesn’t mean they’re going to get it,” said Charles Gittins, a Virginia-based defense attorney who represents service members and has handled capital cases.


Of the long list of alleged U.S. atrocities – from prison massacres in World War II to the slaughter of civilians at My Lai in Vietnam – relatively few high-profile war crimes believed to involve Americans in the past century have resulted in convictions, let alone the death penalty.


Legal experts say a big part of the challenge is assembling forensic evidence and eyewitness testimony from remote, often dangerous parts of the battlefield thousands of miles away from the United States. And there’s an emotional component, too, in prosecuting U.S. citizens who have risked their lives in combat.


“Terms like `fog of war’ mean nothing legally,” said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale University. “But there’s a reluctance to invoke the full moral sanction of criminal justice in these cases.”


The military doesn’t even have the equipment necessary to carry out an execution. If a service member were to be put to death, the military would rely on the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.


Of note is that U.S. service members – as well as contractors supporting them in war zones – are subject to a different set of rules than civilians when it comes to capital punishment. Unlike in the civilian world, the president must personally agree to the death sentence of a service member.


“If someone does two (military death penalty cases) in their entire career, that would be miraculous,” he said. The question Panetta and others will have to ask, Gittins says, is whether pursuing the death penalty for Bales is worthwhile, given the likelihood such a punishment wouldn’t stick anyway.


Human Rights Watch in Washington, which opposes the death penalty, says it’s not clear the U.S. has the political stomach to follow through with the prosecution of war crimes involving its own citizens.


Andrea Prasow, the organization’s senior counterterrorism counsel, said there was only one word to describe America’s track record for punishing war crimes: “abysmal.”


She says she is most troubled by a lack of accountability in suspected abuse of detainees, including the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq and secret interrogations led by the CIA.
“Every time a case is not prosecuted, it contributes to a culture of impunity,” Prasow said.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here