By Jonathan Kaminsky
TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - Lawyers for a U.S. soldier who pleaded guilty in June to the slaughter of 16 Afghan civilians sought the dismissal of the prosecution team at a hearing on Tuesday, saying a document they saw could compromise the fairness of the upcoming sentencing proceeding.
Attorneys for Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales complained that his constitutional right not to incriminate himself was violated when the judge in the case mistakenly provided prosecutors with an unredacted copy of a court-ordered mental health evaluation.
Bales, in a deal that spares him the death penalty, pleaded guilty in June to walking off his base in Afghanistan's Kandahar province before dawn on March 11, 2012, and gunning down civilians in their homes in at least two villages.
But he will still face a sentencing hearing next week that will determine whether he will ever have a shot at parole or spend the rest of his life in prison, and his lawyers argued that the fairness of that proceeding had been compromised.
"He was compelled and ordered to talk to the sanity board over our objection and he was promised it would never be used for any reason," said John Henry Browne, Bales' civilian attorney, speaking to reporters after the hearing. "It's actually really pretty simple."
Prosecutors argued during the hearing that seeing a document was not equivalent to using it against a defendant, and that the error should not result in disqualification.
"The Constitution prohibits the use of (compelled) statements," said Captain Chad Fisher, who was not among the prosecutors who reviewed the offending document. "It does not prohibit exposure."
The military judge in the case, Army Colonel Jeffery Nance, promised to rule quickly on whether to replace the prosecution team. Such a move would likely delay the sentencing hearing, which is expected to last for seven to 10 days, Browne said.
Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, acknowledged the killings upon pleading guilty in June and told the court there was "not a good reason in this world" for his actions.
His attack marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on a lone, 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.
Defense attorneys have argued that Bales, a father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury even before his deployment to Afghanistan.
A decision to keep the prosecution team on the case "would be a huge issue on appeal," Browne said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Leslie Adler and Lisa Shumaker)