TACOMA (Reuters) - A shooting rampage in March that left 16 Afghans dead in two villages was the work of more than one person, an Afghan police investigator testified on Sunday, contradicting the U.S. government's account.
Military prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, accusing him of killing the villagers, mostly women and children, when he ventured out of his remote camp on two revenge-fueled forays over a five-hour period in March.
The government believes Bales was solely responsible for the deaths, and survivors have testified to seeing only a single soldier. But several indirect accounts have suggested that more than one U.S. soldier was involved.
"One person did not have the courage to go to the villages in the dark of night," Major Khudai Dad, the Afghan Uniform Police's chief of criminal techniques in Kandahar City, told a hearing at a U.S. Army base via video link from Kandahar.
"There's no way it is one person," said Dad, speaking through an interpreter. Dad visited three compounds several thousand meters apart in the villages of Alkozai and Najiban around 8 a.m. on March 11, hours after the attacks.
"One person cannot do this work," said Dad, adding that he spent only one hour at the three compounds, fearing Taliban attacks.
Dad was the sole witness on the seventh day of testimony before an 'Article 32' hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, which will establish whether Bales will face a court martial and possible death penalty if found guilty.
The shootings in Kandahar province marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on an individual U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and damaged already strained U.S.-Afghan relations.
On Saturday, a U.S. investigator told the hearing that the wife of one of the victims told her during questioning in June that she saw more than one soldier on the night in question.
Army criminal investigator Leona Mansapit said the wife of Mohamed Dawood, who was killed in the village of Najiban, recalled a gunman entering the couple's room shouting about the Taliban, while another man, a U.S. soldier, stood at the door.
This woman was persuaded by male family members not to testify to the hearing, an Army source, who asked not to be named, said on Sunday.
Dad said he took bullet shells from three different compounds, which were several kilometers apart, and turned them over to the Afghan National Army, who passed them on to U.S. investigators.
"In those three areas, where the incidents were, I was thinking and I'm thinking that is not a thing that one person would do," he said.
A veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bales faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder, as well as charges of assault and wrongfully possessing and using steroids and alcohol while deployed.
Prosecutors have already presented physical evidence to tie Bales to the crime scene, with a forensic investigator saying a sample of blood on his clothing matched a swab taken in one of the compounds where the shooting occurred.
Bales' lawyers have not set out an alternative theory to the prosecution case, but have pointed out inconsistencies in testimony and highlighted incidents before the shooting in which Bales lost his temper easily, possibly setting up an argument that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Gathering evidence and witness statements was complicated by the speedy burial of victims, the inability of U.S. investigators to access the crime scenes for three weeks after the violence, and the dispersal of possible witnesses after treatment at a Kandahar hospital.
Reporting By Laura L. Myers, writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by John Stonestreet