US soldier accused of Afghan killings faces 'sanity' review

SEATTLE (REUTERS) - A US soldier charged with killing 16 civilians, most of them women and children, near his Army post in Afghanistan is set to undergo a medical review on Sunday to determine his state of mind at the time of the killings and ability to stand trial.

The review, known in the military as a "sanity board", will be conducted by three doctors at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, and will be completed by May 1, according to a US Army spokesman.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who is accused of gunning down the villagers in cold blood during two rampages through their family compounds in Kandahar province last March.

Army prosecutors say Bales, a 39-year-old father of two, acted alone and with "chilling premeditation" when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his base twice in the night, returning in the middle of his rampage to tell a fellow soldier: "I just shot up some people." The shootings marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on a rogue US soldier since the Vietnam War and further eroded strained US-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in that country.

Defence lawyers have not set out an alternative theory of what happened on the night of the shootings, but have focused on Bales' fragile mental state.

Bales' lead civilian attorney John Henry Browne said in January that government documents showed Bales had been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury before his deployment in Afghanistan in 2011.

After hearing preliminary evidence in November, military Judge Jeffery Nance determined that Bales should face a court martial, which is due to begin in September.

At Bales' arraignment in January, Mr Browne's team entered no plea and told Judge Nance they were preparing a possible "mental health defence." Judge Nance said such a defence would require a formal psychiatric evaluation, and ordered a sanity board review.

Sanity boards are common in military justice, said Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Gary Dangerfield. They may be ordered when a commander, investigating officer, government trial counsel, defence counsel, or military judge believes there is reason to question the mental responsibility of the accused at the time of the offences or that the person lacks the mental capacity to stand trial, Lt-Col Dangerfield said.