The family of the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier charged in a bloody rampage in Southern Afghanistan is seeking donations to pay legal costs that some experts expect will run well into the six figures.
A family spokesman, Lance Rosen, said Monday the costs to defend Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is “way beyond the means, to put it mildly” of Bales’ wife, Kari, and their family.
Bales, 38, of Lake Tapps, is accused of leaving his base March 11 and killing 17 people, including nine children, in two villages. He was charged Friday.
Kari Bales was asked in her first interview broadcast Monday whether it would be difficult to raise money given the horrific nature of the charges leveled against him.
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“I think that all soldiers, all people, deserve the best defense that they can get, and I believe he deserves the best defense,” she told the Today show.
In the wide-ranging interview, she also said her husband didn’t exhibit obvious signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and that she was confident he was fit for a fourth combat tour, but that he did not want to go.
Bales joins other soldiers accused of crimes in combat zones whose families and supporters have sought public help to defray substantial legal fees. At least three families of Lewis-McChord soldiers put on trial for murdering Afghan civilians for sport in 2010 accepted donations or assistance.
Former Muslim Army chaplain James Yee received tens of thousands dollars in donations to his legal defense fund starting in 2003 following his arrest on allegations that he was a spy. Yee had worked at Fort Lewis but was transferred to the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba to counsel detainees there. The military later dropped all charges against Yee.
Heather Ellis, executive director of United American Patriots, a group that raises money for soldiers accused of crimes in combat zones, said legal bills of between $200,000 and $250,000 are not out of the ordinary.
Legal fees for Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, accused of leading a group of Marines that killed 24 unarmed civilians in Haditha, Iraq in 2005, would approach $1 million at normal rates, not including related expenses and family travel, she said. In January, Wuterich pleaded guilty to negligent dereliction of duty under a plea agreement and received no jail time.
“It can be astronomical,” said Ellis, whose organization is not assisting Bales because he committed his alleged crimes outside of combat.
Ellis said she’s heard of families losing their homes or moving in with other family members due to the strain the legal costs put on their finances.
The Bales were already under financial stress before the tragic events of March 11. News accounts show Karilyn Bales had related her financial struggles on her blog over the past year, the couple had tried to sell their house in Lake Tapps for 20 percent less than they paid for it and lost another residence they owned in Auburn.
Gene Fidell, who represented Yee and now teaches military justice at Yale Law School, said the cost to defend Bales would be “way into the six figures and maybe beyond that.”
Bales’ defense team would be required to conduct its own investigation into the massacre in order to provide the sergeant with effective counsel, Fidell said Monday.
“That’s got to happen here. It’s a capital case,” he said.
That might include a trip to Afghanistan to view the crime scenes and interview witnesses if such a trip could be arranged with the U.S. and Afghan militaries, Fidell said.
Brett Purtzer, a Tacoma criminal defense attorney, said the cost of defending Bales likely would reach into hundreds of thousands of dollars “given the location and the number of potential persons to interview and the necessity to have interpreters available.”
“Given that it sounds like a mental health defense, the experts alone could be $50,000 to $100,000, given the nature of this case and the publicity it has obtained,” said Purtzer, immediate past president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association.
Soldiers accused of crimes are provided a military lawyer at no cost, said Maj. Chris Ophardt, a spokesman at Lewis-McChord, but they have the option to hire a civilian attorney.
Bales has hired John Henry Browne, a well-known and media-savvy defense lawyer who has represented many high-profile clients. Bales is expected to use a military defender, too.
Yee said his military lawyer immediately recommended he hire a civilian lawyer because they have fewer limitations, including use of the media as part of their defense strategy. Yee said his legal bills were more than $260,000, and the financial assistance he received was invaluable.
“It’s devastating,” the former Olympia resident said of the prospect of footing that bill alone. “I certainly didn’t have it. My family didn’t have it. I would be paying back legal fees today without that mechanism and the generosity of the community.”
Contributions can be sent to The Staff Sergeant Robert Bales Legal Defense Fund, PO Box 2774, Seattle, WA 98111. Contributions are not tax-deductible.
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