By Jonathan Kaminsky
TACOMA, Wash., Aug 20 (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Tuesday for the sentencing phase in the court-martial of a U.S. soldier who pleaded guilty in June to the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians near his Army post in Kandahar.
Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales will be spared the death penalty under an agreement that accompanied his guilty plea. He faces instead a life prison sentence, but the sentencing jury will decide whether he could be eligible for parole after 20 years, minus time already served and credit for good behavior.
At a hearing on Monday, Lawyers for both sides signaled the arguments that they would make when the sentencing hearing began.
Bales' attorneys said they would argue that post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury were factors in the killings, while prosecutors hope to show that he engaged in a pattern of bad behavior that predated his multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The proceedings at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, which a base official said began at 8 a.m. local time, are expected to last at least a week.
Prosecutors have said they intend to play for jurors taped telephone conversations between an incarcerated Bales and his wife, Kari, laughing about the charges leveled against him and discussing a possible book deal for her.
Defense lawyers said those discussions and others that prosecutors want to use were taken out of context. The military judge presiding over the case ruled on Monday that the complete phone conversations, totaling over two hours, could be played for the jury.
Bales pleaded guilty in June to walking off his base in Afghanistan's Kandahar province before dawn on March 11, 2012, and killing 16 unarmed civilians, most of them women and children, in attacks on their family compounds.
The slayings marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on a single, rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and further strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in that country.
Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, acknowledged the killings upon pleading guilty and told the court there was "not a good reason in this world" for his actions. (Editing by Sharon Bernstein, Steve Gorman and Carol Bishopric)