WASHINGTON — In the United States, a murder case can be pretty straightforward: the victim dies, police collect evidence and use it to pursue suspects.
But as U.S. military prosecutors prepare to charge Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in the deaths of 16 Afghan villagers, the challenges they face are certain to make the high-profile case anything but straightforward.
Consider this: Top Afghan officials have called for the suspect to face the death penalty — a possibility that even Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has acknowledged — but one aggravating factor that could lead to capital punishment is whether some of the victims were under 15 years of age.
While initial accounts suggest that nine children were killed, the bodies were immediately buried according to Islamic custom. Experts note that in a place where identity records are scarce — and where even the act of collecting spent shells for study can be deadly — how do prosecutors prove that a victim was indeed under 15, was in fact murdered, and was in fact murdered by a bullet from a particular gun?
Military law experts say that the case will be littered with potential traps for the prosecution, including the fact that both Afghan and U.S. investigators have collected evidence from the crime scene. [++]