Fort Hood trial: Nidal Hasan rests his defense with no witnesses, no testimony

The court-martial for Maj. Nidal Hasan, accused of killing 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in 2009, is now headed for closing arguments, the eventual verdict, and, if he’s found guilty, sentencing.

Brigitte Woosley/AP
In this court room sketch, Judge Col. Tara Osborn, top, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan (r.) and defense attorney, Lt. Col. Kris Poppe are shown, Aug. 21, in Fort Hood, Texas.

Maj. Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist whom the US military says killed 13 fellow soldiers in a brutal attack at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5, 2009, offered no defense in his defense on Wednesday, in essence displaying a willingness to die as a martyr for the cause of radical Islam.

The 12th day of Hasan’s court-martial inside a heavily fortified compound in Killeen, Texas, ended early Wednesday, as a much-anticipated statement from Hasan became a three-word anticlimax: “The defense rests.” The Army major, who is representing himself, had called no witnesses to the stand, and he also declined to testify himself.

The judge, Col. Tara Osborn, quickly ended the day’s session, setting the stage for closing arguments, the eventual verdict, and, if he’s found guilty, sentencing.

The trial was expected to take months, but Hasan barely spoke as military prosecutors put five dozen witnesses on the stand. Those witnesses included many soldiers who were there the day the prosecution says that Hasan, yelling “Allah is great” in Arabic, fired at least 200 shots into a crowded soldier readiness center.

Like Hasan, the soldiers were getting ready for deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq. Hasan’s only stated defense, which was not allowed by the judge, was that he acted in defense of Islamic soldiers, the Taliban. He later said in court that he “switched sides” in the war on terror.

Terror-law experts have anticipated some kind of outburst from Hasan, who said in his opening statement that the evidence will show “I am the shooter.” That phrase helped prompt his appointed attorneys to demand to be removed from the case, because they couldn’t, in good moral conscience, support a defendant with a death wish. (Even though Hasan is representing himself, he still has attorneys on the sidelines.)

The Army is seeking to execute Hasan if he is found guilty by a jury of higher-ranking officers. Hasan had told investigators that he will be a martyr even if the Army executes him, according to a 2010 Army report that was released last week.

Some law professors have speculated that Hasan’s lack of a defense is in itself a defense: Those who sentence him may not be willing to give him what he purportedly wants.

Hasan may still “lay out his case, say he’s justified in what he did, that he would do it again, and that he welcomes death,” says Jeffrey Addicott, a conservative terrorism law expert at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. “The jury may then be saying, ‘Let’s not give him what he wants,’ almost like reverse psychology. He may avoid the death penalty by seeking the death penalty.”

An alternative is a life sentence at the US Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Hasan will have more opportunities to speak, including in any potential sentencing phase. Former Army judge advocate Geoffrey Corn, a law professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston, tells USA Today that Hasan’s passive strategy marks a defendant wanting to get on to sentencing, where he may be more able to voice his opinions and use the trial as “a soapbox.”

The stakes are certainly high. For one, the trial marks the resolution of arguably the first major terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11 – one that happened on President Obama’s watch. (The Pentagon, however, has officially classified the incident as workplace violence.)

Also, the Army hasn’t executed a US soldier since 1961, despite 16 capital convictions in the past 50 years. Of those death sentences, only three people remain on the military’s version of death row at Fort Leavenworth. The death sentences for the others were all overturned in various ways.

Fully aware of that poor capital-case record, the military justice system has allowed Hasan broad leeway throughout the process to thwart appeals. It’s allowed him to keep his beard, for example, against Army regulations, and let him defend himself, which opened the possibility of him cross-examining the same people he allegedly tried to kill in 2009.

Even one of the most controversial aspects of the government’s treatment of Hasan – the classification as workplace violence – is rooted, according to a Pentagon memo, in a desire by the government to not wreck the fairness of the trial by preemptively declaring him a terrorist.

As things turned out, Hasan questioned the testimony of those who were there in 2009 barely at all. One witness, Staff Sgt. Juan Alvarado, testified on Monday that he saw Hasan try to shoot a police officer, Sgt. Kimberly Munley, even after she’d been shot and was disarmed. “Are you saying it was clear that she was disarmed, that I continued to fire at her?” Hasan asked, to which Alvarado replied, “Yes.”

Given that he declined to take the opportunity to defend himself in front of the jury on Wednesday, that short exchange on Monday, so far, has been arguably Hasan’s best attempt at a defense – that he honorably killed soldiers he considered deadly enemies.

Other witnesses testified that Hasan appeared to avoid shooting at civilians, and prosecutors agreed, saying he had bought laser sights so as to better target only soldiers.

“The only person that’s important in his mind is, ‘How does Allah view what I’m doing?’” Mr. Addicott says. “He can’t look in the mirror and say, ‘I murdered my fellow soldiers.’ He can’t admit that. He has to stick with the playbook, which is that, ‘I’m doing this not because I deserve to be punished; I am steering this course because I deserve to go to paradise.”

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