By Laura L. Myers
TACOMA, Jan 17 (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 villagers in Afghanistan deferred making a plea to capital murder charges at a U.S. military court on Thursday, and the judge said he would order the soldier's mental health evaluated.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for U.S. Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who is accused of gunning down the villagers - mostly women and children - in their homes in two villages in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.
Bales, 39, wearing green military dress, entered his deferred plea through one of his defense attorneys, who also waived reading of charges against Bales.
Asked if he understood his case could result in the death penalty, Bales answered "Sir, yes sir."
Prosecutors say Bales, a father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, acted alone and with "chilling premeditation" when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his base twice, returning in the middle of his rampage to tell a fellow soldier: "I just shot up some people."
The shootings, which occurred over a five-hour period in March, marked one of the deadliest incidents the military has blamed on a rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War, and strained U.S.-Afghan relations.
Bales was bound over for court martial in December and faces 16 murder charges, as well as other charges, including attempted murder, assault and drug and alcohol charges.
During a pre-trial hearing in November at Washington state's Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where Bales is being held and where Thursday's arraignment took place, witnesses testified that he had been angered by a bomb blast near his outpost that severed a fellow soldier's leg days before the shootings.
The government believes Bales was solely responsible for the deaths, and survivors have testified that they saw only one U.S. soldier. However, several indirect accounts have suggested more than one soldier may have been involved.
Defense lawyers have not outlined an alternative theory of the case, but have pointed to incidents before the shooting where Bales lost his temper easily that could help set up an argument that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The military judge overseeing the case, Jeffery Nance, said on Thursday he would order Bales be put before an official sanity board of independent doctors charged with determining his mental condition.
He did not immediately set the conditions of the mental health review, but said Bales' participation was needed for his attorneys to mount a mental health defense.
Defense attorney Emma Scanlan said Bales would participate in the review, but wanted him to be examined by a neuropsychologist with expertise in traumatic brain injuries. She also wanted defense attorneys to be present at the examination, which the defense wants recorded.
"What I'm asking is that the process be fair to the accused," Scanlan said.
Bales' lawyers, who said the soldier suffered brain trauma while deployed, have resisted such a review.
Nance did not set a start date for the trial. Defense attorney John Henry Browne is requesting a start date in May 2014.