The trial of Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people in a mass shooting at Fort Hood, Tex., in 2009, began today. Hasan, who was paralyzed below the waist by a police bullet during the incident, is representing himself in the trial, and cited his religion in his remarks to jurors today:
“The evidence will clearly show that I am the shooter,” he said, adding later that it also would show “that we are imperfect Muslims trying to establish the perfect religion ... I apologize for any mistakes I made in this endeavor.” . . .
Hasan is charged with numerous counts of murder and attempted murder for the attack that left 13 people dead. He had wanted to argue that he carried out the shooting in “defense of others,” namely members of the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan, but the judge denied that strategy.
His defense strategy still remains unclear, but over the next several weeks, he is expected to question witnesses and possibly present his own evidence.
The trial seems likely to unfold as a faceoff between the gunman and his victims. On the witness stand will be many of the more than 30 people who were wounded, plus dozens of others who were inside the post’s Soldier Readiness Processing Center. They’ve also said they saw Hasan shout “Allahu akbar!” — Arabic for “God is great!” — and open fire on unarmed fellow soldiers.
The government has said that Hasan, a U.S.-born Muslim, had sent more than a dozen e-mails starting in December 2008 to Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical U.S.-born Islamic cleric killed by a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
Hasan has never denied carrying out the attack, and the facts of the case are mostly settled. But questions abound about how the trial will play out. How will Hasan question his victims? How will victims respond? How will his health hold up?
Some of the survivors of the incident are looking forward to confronting Hasan at the trial:
Alonzo Lunsford has trouble getting out of chairs and warns his family to wake him gently. Kathy Platoni can’t shake the image of the man who died in a pool of blood at her knees. Shawn Manning still has two bullets in his body and gets easily unnerved by crowds. . . .
“I have to keep my composure and not go after the guy,” said Manning, a mental health specialist who was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan with Hasan. “I’m not afraid of him, obviously. He’s a paralyzed guy in a wheelchair, but it’s sickening that he’s still living and breathing.”
Lunsford — a now-retired staff sergeant who was shot seven times — relishes the thought of staring at Hasan and telling him that he did not win. Like Manning, he carries two bullets with him — one in a small wooden box, the other in his back.
“That man strikes no fear in my heart. He strikes no fear in my family. What he did to me was bad. But the biggest mistake that he made was I survived. So he will see me again,” he said as he sat on his porch in Lillington, rubbing the shiny slug between his fingers.
“I will never show any fear in the face of my enemy,” he added. “Never.”
Platoni just hopes she can keep her composure enough to support the family of Capt. John Gaffaney, the friend and soldier who died next to her.
Authorities are seeking the death penalty for Hasan, but capital crimes are especially difficult to prosecute under military law, which explains why so many delays have postponed Hasan’s trial:
Military law prohibits him from entering a guilty plea because authorities are seeking the death penalty. But if he is convicted and sentenced to death in a trial that starts Tuesday, there are likely years, if not decades, of appeals ahead.
He may never make it to the death chamber at all.
While the Hasan case is unusually complex, experts also say the military justice system is unaccustomed to dealing with death penalty cases and has struggled to avoid overturned sentences.
Eleven of the 16 death sentences handed down by military juries in the past 30 years have been overturned, according to an academic study and court records. No active-duty soldier has been executed since 1961.
A reversed verdict or sentence on appeal in the Hasan case would be a fiasco for prosecutors and the Army. That’s one reason why prosecutors and the military judge have been deliberate leading up to trial, said Geoffrey Corn, a professor at the South Texas College of Law and former military lawyer.
“The public looks and says, ‘This is an obviously guilty defendant. What’s so hard about this?’ ” Corn said. “What seems so simple is in fact relatively complicated.”
Hasan is charged with 13 specifications of premeditated murder and 32 specifications of attempted premeditated murder. Thirteen officers from around the country who hold Hasan’s rank or higher will serve on the jury for a trial that will likely last one month and probably longer. They must be unanimous to convict Hasan of murder and sentence him to death. Three-quarters of the panel must vote for an attempted murder conviction.
The United States also confronts a civil suit in Hasan’s case:
More than 130 victims of the shooting and their family members have joined a lawsuit seeking damages from the U.S. government, arguing that warnings that Hasan had become radicalized were repeatedly ignored because of “political correctness.”
The FBI’s Washington Field Office was aware that Hasan had exchanged e-mails with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical U.S.-born Islamic cleric who was killed in a drone attack in Yemen in 2011, but did not inform the Defense Department. Hasan, who was soon to deploy to Afghanistan at the time of the attack, allegedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” — meaning “God is great” in Arabic — before opening fire.
The victims’ lawsuit is also seeking to have the shootings reclassified as a terrorist attack rather than workplace violence, which would make victims eligible for benefits given to soldiers wounded or killed in combat.