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Soldier avoids death penalty in Afghan killings

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- A soldier who said there was "not a good reason in this world" for his murder of 16 Afghan civilians last year will escape the death penalty after a military judge accepted his guilty pleas yesterday.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales pleaded guilty to multiple counts of murder at a hearing at the base here south of Seattle. A jury will decide in August whether the soldier is sentenced to life with or without the possibility of parole.

Bales was charged in the March 2012 attacks on two villages near a remote base in southern Afghanistan. Most of the victims were women and children.

In court yesterday, Bales, 39, read from a statement in a clear and steady voice, describing his murder spree.

Bales said he left his base and went to the nearby villages of mud-walled compounds. Once inside, he said he "formed the intent" of killing the victims, then shot each one.

"This act was without legal justification, sir," Bales told the judge, Col. Jeffery Nance, while seated at a defense table, his hands folded in front of him.

At one point, Nance asked Bales why he committed the slayings.

Bales responded: "Sir, as far as why -- I've asked that question a million times since then. There's not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did."

Bales said he didn't remember setting the bodies on fire But based on what he could recall, the sergeant told the judge, "It's the only thing that makes sense, sir."

Although yesterday's proceedings provided Bales' account for the first time, survivors who testified by video link from Afghanistan last fall vividly recalled the carnage.

A young girl in a bright headscarf described hiding behind her father as he was shot to death. Boys told of hiding behind curtains as others scrambled and begged the soldier to spare them, yelling: "We are children! We are children!"

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