Why Robert Bales’ Lawyer Kept Mum on Mefloquine

In the end, the lawyers representing Staff Sgt. Robert Bales didn’t want a “battle of the experts” on their hands. That, says defense attorney John Henry Browne, is why he and associate Emma Scanlan decided not to tackle any mental health issues in the sentencing hearing that ended on Friday, with Bales’ receiving life in prison without the possibility of parole for the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians.

The “tactical maneuver,” as Browne calls it in his Pioneer Square office today, meant that the lawyers avoided the subject of both PTSD and mefloquine, the psychosis-inducing anti-malarial drug that Bales was at one time given by the Army.

The issue of melfoquine (also known by the trade name Lariam), in particular, had recently picked up steam in the press. Wired , The Los Angeles Times , The Sunday Times of London—not to mention Seattle Weekly , which began looking into mefloquine shortly after the massacre—had all run stories in the last month questioning whether the drug might be responsible for Bales’ seemingly incomprehensible transformation from commended soldier to wanton killer. The FDA also issued a stern warning about the drug’s potential side effects, which includes dizziness and depression in addition to hallucinations.

But Browne says the Army medical records he saw showed only that Bales was given the drug on previous deployment, not his latest tour in Afghanistan. A Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in New Jersey is studying mefloquine’s possible long-term effects. Browne says, however, that if he called experts to the stand to testify about that-- or about any other psychological issue—prosecutors would then have then prevailed upon their experts.

And the 67-year-old lawyer, whose multitude of previous high-profile clients include “Barefoot Bandit” Colton Harris-Moore, says his long career has taught him this: “juries don’t like experts.”

So defense lawyers concentrated on painting as sympathetic a portrait of Bales as they could. They showed, for instance, that the former senior class president and quarterback had helped take care of a profoundly disabled neighbor while growing up in Ohio.

Prosecutors, in contrast, presented an array of gruesome pictures that conveyed the horror of what Bales had done.

Unfortunately, the hearing left the public no more able to make sense of the massacre than before.

The chapter is not quite closed on the Bales case. Browne says Bales can appeal the sentence, although a military lawyer will take it from here. Browne, who has been representing Browne pro bono, says he can longer afford to work on the case.

It is also possible that the commander of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, or an even more senior officer, could at any time commute Bales’ sentence. Browne says that’s not likely to happen soon. A number of Afghanis, who wanted to see Bales executed, have already decried the sentence as too lenient.

In 10 years, the climate might be different, Browne suggests. He notes that William Calley, the lieutenant sentenced to life for his role in the even more horrific My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War, ultimately served just three years after President Nixon commuted the sentence. Yet even if Bales’ sentence is one day reduced, one wonders: Will we ever understand why he did what he did?

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