REPORTING FROM A U.S. AIR FORCE AIRCRAFT EN ROUTE TO KYRGYZSTAN -- The U.S. Army staff sergeant who allegedly killed 16 civilians in Afghanistan during the weekend could face the death penalty if convicted in the unprovoked attack, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Monday.
“My understanding is that in these instances that could be a consideration,” Panetta said, referring to the death penalty as he flew aboard an Air Force jet to Kyrgyzstan for meetings with officials there.
Pentagon officials have not released the soldier's name and say they are still unclear on his motive for carrying out the attack, which sparked a crisis in the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan and raised questions about whether the Obama administration will have to adjust its strategy.
Panetta indicated that the soldier turned himself in and told superiors what had happened, raising the possibility that he may have confessed.
“He went out in the morning, early morning, and went to these homes and fired on these families and then at some point after that came back to the forward operations base and basically turned himself in, told individuals what had happened,” Panetta said.
Pressed on whether the soldier confessed, Panetta said, “ I suspect that was the case.”
A confession would make it easier for military prosecutors to win a conviction if it was admitted as evidence at a military court-martial.
It is unclear where such a court-martial would be held, though the most likely venue would be Ft. Lewis in Washington state, where the soldier’s unit is based.
Referring to the shootings as a “criminal act,” Panetta said Afghan President Hamid Karzai had been assured that the person responsible “will be brought to justice and held accountable.”
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta fields questions from reporters during a flight to Kyrgyzstan on March 12, 2012. Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images