By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - The U.S. Army on Friday dropped one of the murder charges against the soldier originally accused of killing 17 Afghan villagers in March, reducing the number of murder counts to 16 due to the double-counting of one of the dead, officials said.
The amended complaint now also accuses Staff Sergeant Robert Bales of wrongfully possessing and using steroids and unlawfully consuming alcohol while deployed.
The March 11 mass shooting in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan further eroded U.S.-Afghan relations, already frayed by a decade of war.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Gary Dangerfield, a spokesman for Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state where Bales was assigned, said the reduction in the number of murder counts stems from the fact that one of the dead Afghan villagers was double counted. "You had the same name twice," he said.
Initial reports from Afghanistan had put the death toll at 16 people, despite the Army's original decision to charge Bales with 17 counts of murder.
The number of murder counts was reduced to 16 only after "extensive interviews of family members" of those shot to confirm there were 16 dead and not 17, Dangerfield said.
Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was initially charged with killing eight adults and nine children and with six counts each of assault and attempted murder for attacking two other adults and four children.
Dangerfield could not immediately say how many children might be included among the dead from the amended 16 murder counts, and newly filed charging documents did not provide details on that.
Bales is accused of walking off his base under cover of darkness and opening fire at civilians in their homes in at least two villages in the Panjwai district of Kandahar.
A Seattle-based attorney for Bales, John Henry Browne, did not return calls.
In the new charging documents, Bales is also accused of burning several bodies of Afghan villagers.
The six counts of attempted murder against Bales remain unchanged in the amended complaint. But the newly filed documents also add a count of assault, which brings the total number of those counts to seven, from the previous six.
The new allegation involves an incident from February, the month before the mass shooting, in which Bales is accused of using his hands and knees to "unlawfully strike" a male Afghan whose name is unknown, according to the charging documents.
Bales is also accused of destroying a laptop computer.
He is being held at Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, but was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment headquartered at Lewis-McChord.
Premeditated murder is a capital offense under the U.S. military justice code, so Bales could face the death penalty if convicted. He would face a mandatory minimum sentence, if convicted, of life imprisonment with eligibility for parole, the military has said.
An evidentiary proceeding called an Article 32 hearing in Bale's case could occur within the next month, or later if attorneys seek a delay, Dangerfield said. The site of that hearing has not been set, but it could occur at Lewis-McChord, he said.
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Todd Eastham)