Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will be examined within the next four to six weeks by an Army panel of doctors to determine whether he is mentally fit to stand trial on charges of murdering 17 Afghan villagers, according to an Army official briefed on the case.

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Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will be examined in spring by an Army panel of doctors to determine whether he is mentally fit to stand trial on charges of murdering 17 Afghan villagers, according to an Army official briefed on the case.

A “sanity board” of Army doctors from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center will meet with Bales and review his files to understand more about his personal life and military experience.

The board will likely examine any prescription medications he may have taken before the March 11 killings in two villages in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan.

The doctors will determine whether Bales had a severe mental disease or defect at the time of the killings. They also will decide if he is able to appreciate the wrongfulness of his alleged conduct and whether he is able to understand the court-martial proceedings and to cooperate in his defense.

The panel, which will offer a clinical psychiatric diagnosis of Bales, is expected to complete its work in the next 30 to 45 days, according to the Army official, who was not given permission to speak on the record.

The sanity board is an important early step in a court-martial process that may extend for years. Bales is to be tried in the murders of 17 civilians, most women and children, in a case that constitutes the most serious war crimes to emerge from U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

Bales, 38, spent more than a decade based at Lewis-McChord and previously deployed three times to Iraq.

The board’s findings also will guide the Army in determining how it moves forward with a court-martial. Currently, Bales faces a maximum penalty of death if found guilty of the murder charges, but the Army eventually could opt to pursue a lesser maximum penalty, such as life imprisonment without parole.

Bales’ civilian defense attorney, John Henry Browne, said Monday the sanity board’s examination was expected, and that full findings will be shared with the defense.

Browne has said the possibility that his client suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by injuries and multiple combat deployments will be important issues to be explored by the defense.

Even when defendants are found mentally competent by a sanity board, information contained in these reports can be used by defense attorneys to chip away at a prosecutor’s case, according to Daniel Conway, a civilian defense attorney who represents clients in criminal court-martial cases.

If the court-martial proceeds, for example, defense attorneys could still argue that Bales suffered from a “diminished capacity” to understand his actions, and thus make the case that his actions did not constitute premeditated murder as charged by Army prosecutors.

And the sanity board might offer information to bolster those arguments, according to Phillip Stackhouse, a civilian attorney who represented Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, a Lewis-McChord soldier convicted last year of the premeditated murder of three Afghan civilians.

Bales’ defense team had included Army defense counsel Maj. Thomas Hurley as well as his civilian attorneys.

But Browne on Monday, citing a lack of trust in Hurley, said he is seeking to get a different Army attorney appointed to the case.

In a story over the weekend, Reuters news service reported disagreements between Browne and Hurley over handling of the case.

Hurley, in one email obtained by Reuters, expressed concern about an interview that Karilyn Bales — Bales’ wife — had done with NBC’s “Today” show.

Though unsure what symptoms of PTSD might be, she said her husband did not have nightmares or trouble concentrating and did not display erratic behavior shifts.

Such interviews “limit our options at trial or expose important witnesses to effective cross-examination that they would otherwise not have to face,” Hurley told Browne in an email.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or