An American soldier was sentenced on Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing 16 Afghan civilians in a nighttime rampage last year, an attack for which he later apologized and called an "act of cowardice."
Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has admitted to slaughtering the villagers, mostly women and children, in attacks on their family compounds in Kandahar province in March 2012.
Bales pleaded guilty to the killings in June in a deal that spared him the death penalty, and a sentencing jury of six military personnel deliberated less than two hours on Friday before deciding he should spend the rest of his life in prison.
Bales, who appeared in court in blue military dress, showed no emotion as the verdict was handed down, but his mother cried and rocked back and forth.
Both sides made closing arguments on Friday morning at the conclusion of sentencing proceedings at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma in Washington state.
"He wiped out generations and he ruined lives forever," said prosecutor Lieutenant Colonel Jay Morse. "He should be known by one official title from this day until the day he dies: inmate."
Army prosecutors have said Bales acted alone and with premeditation when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his outpost twice during the night, returning in the middle of his rampage to tell a fellow soldier, "I just shot up some people."
The killings marked the worst case of civilian deaths blamed on a U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and further eroded strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in Afghanistan.
Before the case went to the jury, Morse told the court that Bales lacked a moral compass. He showed graphic photos of victims and played video in which Bales could be seen returning to base on the day of the killings, cloaked in a blanket snatched during the rampage.
"This is the walk of a cold blooded killer," Morse said.
Defense attorneys have said Bales carried out the killings after suffering a breakdown under the pressure of the last of his four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. They have said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury even before shipping off to Kandahar province.
In seeking the possibility of parole for Bales, civilian defense attorney Emma Scanlan said she was not asking the jury to "set him free" but rather to weigh the details of Bales' entire life.
"We don't throw out the first 38 years," Scanlan said. "That doesn't mean, again, that there is anything about this that is not completely horrific."
Scanlan read a letter Bales wrote to his children and family before the attack in which he compared Afghan children to his own, saying they love "to eat candy and play soccer."
"Those aren't the words of a cold-blooded murderer who likes to kill innocent women and children," Scanlan said.