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Jury deciding fate of Fort Hood gunman

Hasan declined to speak as sentencing phase neared end

Aug. 28, 2013 - 03:12PM   |  
Nidal Malik Hasan
Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan sits in court for his court-martial in Fort Hood, Texas, in this courtroom sketch. (Brigitte Woosley / AP)
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FORT HOOD, TEXAS — With his life on the line, Maj. Nidal Hasan has done nothing to dissuade jurors from giving him a death sentence. When his standby lawyers pleaded in vain to argue on his behalf, he described them as “overzealous.”

Jurors began deciding Wednesday whether to hand down a rare military death sentence against Hasan or sentence him to life in prison.

The same jury convicted him last week of killing 13 people and wounding more than 30 others at the Texas military base.

Hasan presented no witnesses or evidence during the sentencing phase of his trial, which began after he was convicted last week of killing 13 people in the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood.

He had one final chance Wednesday to give a closing argument before his case went to the jury, but he declined — continuing an absent defense that he has used since his trial began three weeks ago.

The Army psychiatrist’s behavior has only stoked suspicion that his ultimate goal is martyrdom, in the form of a death sentence that would allow him to fulfill what prosecutors have described as a “jihad duty” under his Islamic faith.

The lead prosecutor, Col. Mike Mulligan, told jurors Wednesday morning that history was full of instances of death in the name of religion. But he said it would be “wrong and unsupportive” to tie Hasan’s actions to a wider cause, and that he should be punished for “his hate, for his actions that he took in the name of his religion.”

“It was conscious decision to commit murder to serve his own needs, his own wants. His attack by him was all about him. This is about his soul, for his soul he stole life from 13 others,” Mulligan said.

Mulligan focused instead on the victims, insisting that Hasan deserved to be executed for the attack at the Texas military base that also wounded more than 30 people.

“He dealt no compassion. He dealt no understanding. He dealt no exceptions. He only dealt death,” Mulligan said. “Because of what he did, because of who he did it to and because of where he did it, the just and appropriate sentence in this is death.”

A few minutes after Mulligan finished, Hasan indicated that he had nothing to say to the jury.

Hasan has been representing himself during the trial, and his lack of defense has caused problems with the military defense attorneys ordered to help him.

But legal experts say he has a nearly unshakable right under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to represent himself. The military judge, Col. Tara Osborn, has repeatedly warned him about the danger of being his own attorney, and the three lawyers assigned to help him have tried to step in at least twice.

Osborn denied their latest request Tuesday, and twice used the same metaphor.

“Maj. Hasan is the captain of his own ship,” she said.

Any lawyer trying to save Hasan would have a daunting task. In two days of sentencing, prosecutors called widows, parents and other loved ones of the people Hasan killed. They offered a picture of their overwhelming grief and struggle to move forward after his attack. At least one juror appeared visibly emotional during parts of testimony.

Osborn revealed some of what Hasan’s standby attorneys wanted to tell jurors as she reviewed and denied their motion. Among that evidence includes his good behavior in custody before trial and his offer before trial to plead guilty — which was rejected under military rules because prosecutors are seeking a death sentence.

But Hasan was dismissive of his standby attorneys’ attempts. He repeatedly objected, and as one of them asked to argue the motion, he commented that he had “overzealous defense counsel.”

Osborn is “in a tough situation, no matter what happens,” said Victor Hansen, a military law expert at the New England School of Law, in an interview earlier this month. “At the end of the day, the defendant has the absolute right to decide who’s going to represent him, including deciding to represent himself.”

Hasan rested his case shortly after more than a dozen widows, mothers, fathers, children and other relatives of those killed testified about their lives since the attack. They talked of eerily quiet homes, lost futures, alcoholism and the unmatched fear of hearing a knock on the door.

Sheryll Pearson sobbed when shown a photo of her son, Pfc. Michael Pearson, hugging her during his graduation.

“We always wanted to see who he was going to become. Now that was taken away from us,” she said.

Teena Nemelka lost the youngest of her four children, Pfc. Aaron Nemelka, whom she called, “my baby.” She talked about her frantic searches for information in the moments after learning about the Nov. 5, 2009, shooting and about her fear of hearing a knock at the front door of her home.

“You just freeze,” she said. “You don’t want to open that door.”

But the knock came, with “the worst news you could ever hear.”

Philip Warman said the slaying of his wife, Lt. Col. Juanita Warman, “was like I had something ripped out of me.”

“I pretty much drank until the following June,” he said.

He said he checked into a substance abuse center for 28 days, and he had friends remove his weapons from his home because he didn’t trust himself.

Warman now takes the coins distributed during his Alcoholic Anonymous meetings to Arlington National Cemetery, where his wife is buried next to another Fort Hood victim, Maj. Eduardo Caraveo.

“I push them into the ground at my wife’s grave,” he said.

Prosecutors want Hasan to join just five other service members on military death row. That would require a unanimous decision by the jury of 13 military officers, and prosecutors must prove an aggravating factor and present evidence to show the severity of Hasan’s crimes.

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