By Barbara Starr
U.S. military investigators may travel as early as this week to the Afghan villages where an American soldier is alleged to have shot and killed 17 civilians last month in a shooting rampage.
It would be the first visit by U.S. investigators who had been staying away out of respect to the villagers angry about the shooting.
The military is coordinating details of the visit with the Afghans, a U.S. official told CNN.
So far, the U.S. Army had been relying on evidence collected by Afghan officials at the two villages. Little forensic evidence may be left, the official said, but American investigators hope to dig out of walls whatever bullets are left and examine their trajectories.
The attorney for Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who is accused of the shooting, has questioned how solid the evidence against his client is.
"There's no forensic evidence. There's no confessions," attorney John Henry Browne said on March 23.
The military is also responding to claims by Browne that it has not provided crucial evidence to the defense team.
"The SSG Bales investigation is still ongoing. The prosecution will provide the defense with evidence in accordance with the Rules for Courts-Martial and the Military Rules of Evidence. Within these guidelines the prosecution is and has been communicating with the defense," said Maj. Chris Ophardt, a spokesman for 1st Corps, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, Bales' home base.
Prosecutors do not have to provide evidence until an Article 32 hearing is ordered. At such a hearing, authorities would determine whether to proceed with charges or let experts find out if Bales' mental health may be a factor in his defense.
Military prosecutors have been discussing with Browne the possibility of moving Bales from confinement at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to his home base, according to a U.S. Army official familiar with the discussions.
"We are in discussions on the timing, if it happens," the official said, emphasizing that Bales could still be ordered to remain at Fort Leavenworth.
The official declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of discussions about moving Bales to Lewis-McChord. But he said the reasons for moving him could include easier access to his civilian attorney, as well as potential future visits with his family. But he emphasized that the Army could still decide to leave Bales at Leavenworth.
The two sides are also discussing the timing of a potential mental health evaluation as well as the next legal step, which would be the Article 32 hearing to review the evidence against Bales.