— The wife of a U.S. soldier accused of murdering 17 Afghan civilians believes her husband could not have carried out the crime.
“I don't think anything will really change my mind in believing that he did not do this,’’ Kari Bales told TODAY’s Matt Lauer in an exclusive interview that aired Monday. “This is not what it appears to be.’’
On March 23, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder for killing 17 civilians in two southern Afghanistan villages earlier in March. He allegedly left his base early in the morning and shot the Afghan civilians — including nine children and four women — while they slept in their beds. Bales is also alleged to have carried out the killings in two waves, returning to his base before leaving again to murder more civilians in what is the worst alleged Afghan civilian killing by an American in the decade-long war.
“I just don't think he was involved,’’ his wife said. “I don't know enough information. This is not him. It's not him."
“He’s kind of in shock about the whole thing,’’ Bales' attorney, John Henry Browne, told NBC News. “He’s very emotional. He’s kind of like a deer in the highlights.’’
The 38-year-old soldier and father of two from Bellevue, Wash., was also charged with six counts of attempted murder and six counts of assaults carried out in two villages, one north of the base and one to the south. If convicted on any of the premeditated murder charges, he could be sentenced to death. Bales is being held in solitary confinement at a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and his attorney has told reporters that his client’s mental state will be an issue in the trial. Bales has a spotty memory of the incident and can only really remember the events prior to and after the alleged killings, according to his lawyer.
Kari Bales insists that the man she calls her best friend and a “big kid himself’’ who loves his own children, and could not have killed someone else's.
“It's unbelievable to me,’’ she said. “He loves children and would not do that. It's heartbreaking. I can't imagine losing my children, so my heart definitely goes out to them for losing all of their children."
She has not discussed the allegations with her husband, saying she knew the phone conversation she had with him was monitored. She said Bales seemed confused on the phone about where he was and why he was there. "I don't think I'll have to ask him,’’ she said. “I think he'll tell me what happened from his point of view."
The timeline for the alleged killings remains unclear. One Afghan guard working from midnight to 2 a.m. saw a U.S. soldier return at 1:30 a.m., and the guard’s replacement saw a U.S. soldier leaving the base at 2:30 a.m., but it is unclear whether it was the same soldier.
There are reports that there is surveillance video, and that Bales walked back to the base and turned himself in.
“I used to believe that everything I read was true,’’ Kari said. “And now as I'm reading a little bit of these, some things are true and some things aren't true.’’
She described the moment officials arrived at her door to discuss the charges. “I know they held my hand and they just said that perhaps they thought that he had left the base and gone out and perhaps killed the Afghan civilians,’’ Kari said. “That was really the only sentence, and I just started crying.’’
Bales had done three tours of duty in Iraq before being sent to Afghanistan in December. Kari is confident that he was fit for a fourth deployment and said that she was not aware of any obvious signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or the traumatic brain injury that Bales allegedly suffered on one of his tours.
“He shielded me from a lot of what he went through,’’ she said. “He's a very tough guy. I don't know a lot about the symptoms of PTSD, so I wouldn't know. He doesn't have nightmares.’’
She acknowledged that the effects of war are far-reaching, and that Bales' tour in Afghanistan was "more intense" than his Iraq deployments.
“I would say that a lot of people that have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have seen a lot of things that affected them,’’ she said. “It can't not affect you.’’
She said his deployment to Afghanistan upset their family dynamic.
“To be honest with you, he didn't want to miss out on any more of his kids' lives,’’ Kari said. “When he had joined, he had wanted to go to Afghanistan, so going to Afghanistan didn't worry him. It was more about being just away from the family more time.
“I was upset,’’ she added tearfully. “I was planning my next phases with my family and being able to share it with him.
Kari Bales and her children are currently sequestered at a military base in Washington State for their own protection. The trial, which is not expected to begin for several months, will be held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, nine miles southwest of Tacoma, in order for the family to be closer together.
The family has set up a defense fund for Bales. Raising money for a soldier accused of these crimes may be a difficult task, but Kari feels that her husband deserves a chance to defend himself.
“You know, I think all soldiers, all people, deserve the best defense that they can get,’’ she said. “I believe he deserves the best defense to know what happened."
No service member has been executed under the death penalty since 1961, when an Army ammunition handler was hanged for raping an 11-year-old girl in Austria. Most legal experts believe Bales would receive the mandatory minimum of life in prison with the chance of parole if convicted on a premeditated murder charge. There are currently six men on death row at Fort Leavenworth, but none of them were convicted for crimes against foreign civilians. It would take a unanimous conviction from a 12-member jury to sentence Bales to death.