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Fort Hood trial: Vivid testimony, quiet defendant

Aug. 11, 2013 - 01:21PM   |  
This court room sketch shows Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan during his court-martial Aug. 6 at Forth Hood, Texas.
This court room sketch shows Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan during his court-martial Aug. 6 at Forth Hood, Texas. (Brigitte Woosley / AP)
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FORT HOOD, TEXAS — The first week of the trial of Maj. Nidal Hasan, the radicalized Army psychiatrist accused of killing and wounding unarmed soldiers in a shooting spree here four years ago, had much of the emotional detail and legal jarring observers expected from the military trial.

But one thing was glaringly missing: Hasan’s cross-examination of witnesses.

Since being allowed to represent himself months ago, witnesses and local residents feared that Hasan would be given the rare opportunity of questioning many of the same victims he targeted inside the SoldiersReadiness Processing complex on Nov. 5, 2009.

But Hasan has only cross-examined one of the 44 witnesses called to the stand by prosecutors so far — retired lieutenant colonel Ben Phillips, his former supervisor — and none of the eyewitnesses to the massacre. Prosecutors say Hasan, 42, killed 13 people, including a pregnant private, and wounded 31 others in the shooting.

His interactions have been limited instead to awkward exchanges with the judge, Col. Tara Osborn, and have centered on his standby defense team’s attempts to minimize its role in the proceedings. Hasan faces multiple counts of murder and premeditated murder. If convicted, he could be the first person the U.S. military puts to death in five decades.

In a brief opening statement Tuesday, Hasan admitted to being the shooter in the massacre and swore his allegiance to the mujahideen, or holy warriors.

Hasan’s opening statement and his refusal to cross-examine witnesses suggests he’s trying to get convicted as quickly as possible in order to move to the sentencing stage, where he would get a chance to voice his opinions, said Geoffrey Corn, a former Army judge advocate who teaches military and national security law at South Texas College of Law in Houston.

“It’ll be the only opportunity he’ll have to talk about his warped philosophy and why he did what he did,” Corn said. “He just wants to get it over with so he can get to the stand.”

Though the cross-examinations haven’t materialized, the court-martial still has been emotionaly wrenching for witnesses.

After testifying, soldiers return to a waiting room adjacent to the courtroom and often break into tears, wretched from reliving details of that day, said Autumn Manning, wife of Army Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning, who testified Friday. Those wounded in the shooting, like Shawn Manning, have been through a vexing four years of trial delays and struggles to secure more benefits to treat their wounds, she said. The military has classified the incident as “workplace violence,” which offers less benefits and payoff than combat- or terrorism-related injuries.

Sitting in the courtroom and hearing her husband recount the day of the shooting, with the accused sitting a few feet away, left her with a mix of emotions ranging from dread to sadness to white-hot anger, she said.

“There were times I wished no one was there so I could just pummel him,” Autumn Manning said of Hasan. “You feel what you’re going through, you hear the testimony. It’s just overwhelming.”

The testimony so far has centered on what happened inside Building 42003 of the Soldiers Readiness Processing complex, which was crowded that day with soldiers waiting for final immunizations and medical clearance before being deployed to Afghanistan or other assignments.

Many of the witnesses said they thought it was a training exercise when they heard the first pop-pop-pop of gunfire. Then bullets ripped into bodies, blood streamed everywhere and soldiers scrambled for any cover they could or played dead, they said.

Witnesses recounted how Hasan sat among the soldiers in Station 13, a cluster of chairs where soldiers waited for medical clearance, then walked toward the main desk and told a civilian working there that she was needed elsewhere before bellowing “Allahu Akbar!” — God is great. Then he started shooting.

Sgt. Lamar Nixon told the court on Thursday how he was working in the building, helping soldiers find their corresponding station, when the gunfire began. Nixon sprinted into a nearby women’s bathroom to avoid being shot. “He was trying to kill everybody,” he said.

Later, as he exited the building, Nixon saw bodies littering the floor, including that of his friend and colleague Michael Cahill, who had tried to stop Hasan and was killed, he said. “There were brains, guts, you name it on the floor,” Nixon said.

The majority of witnesses have pointed to Hasan as the person they saw shooting people that day. Throughout the vivid testimony, Hasan has stayed mostly quiet, looking down at his notes, occasionally glancing up at a witness and very rarely objecting.

The court-martial was expected to last several months but prosecutors say they may finish their case much faster since Hasan is not questioning witnesses.

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