The court-martial proceedings for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, accused of killing 17 unarmed Afghan villagers in a nighttime rampage, could be held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Western Washington.

Share story

With the Friday announcement of a “convening authority” at Joint Base Lewis-McChord to investigate the alleged crimes of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the sprawling military installation south of Tacoma may once again be the setting for a major war-crimes court-martial.

The Army still could opt to hold the court-martial elsewhere, such as Fort Leavenworth in Kansas where Bales is now incarcerated.

But representatives of Bales’ defense team are expected to press for the court-martial to proceed at the base in Western Washington, where the soldier’s family would be close at hand.

This is the second time within two years that a major war-crimes court-martial has been launched at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Back in the summer of 2010, the base began an investigation that led to the November 2011 court-martial conviction of Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs for the premeditated murder of three unarmed Afghans.

Gibbs, like Bales, initially faced the possibility of a death sentence. Before his court-martial his maximum possible penalty was reduced to life imprisonment without parole. He was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.

In addition to Gibbs, three other Lewis-McChord-based soldiers in 2011 went through court-martial proceedings at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and were sentenced for their roles in the killings of the three unarmed Afghans.

Though the timeline for a Bales court-martial is uncertain, it could unfold in the next 18 to 24 months if it follows the precedents set by the courts-martial of Gibbs and his fellow soldiers, according to Maj. Chris Ophardt, a spokesman for I Corps at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Bales is charged with the premeditated murder of 17 Afghan villagers, and attempting to murder six others. The charging documents released Friday say that 10 of the murder victims were females, and five of the victims of attempted murder were women or children. In comments last week during a visit to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Gen. David Rodriguez head of the Army Forces Command, indicated that that base could handle the court-martial.

“I am confident that this base can be properly secured to do that in the right way,” Rodriguez said.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com