Fort Hood shooting suspect charged with 13 counts of murder

November 13, 2009|By Nicholas Riccardi | Tribune Newspapers

FORT HOOD, Texas — — Military officials on Thursday filed 13 charges of premeditated murder against Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is accused of gunning down his fellow soldiers last week, setting the stage for the most high-profile court martial in a generation.

The charges carry the potential of the death penalty, which the military is widely expected to seek but has not formally announced it is pursuing. Because the 39-year-old psychiatrist is still an active duty soldier, military courts have jurisdiction rather than civilian ones.

"It's quite possibly one of the most sensitive military justice matters that's ever come up," said Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale and is president of the National Institute for Military Justice. "All this makes for a probably history-making case."

Officials allege that Hasan, a devout Muslim who was due to deploy to Afghanistan, opened fire upon unarmed soldiers who were filling out paperwork inside the Soldier Readiness Center here. Hasan allegedly killed 12 soldiers and one civilian before being shot by two civilian police officers.

On Thursday, Hasan remained confined at a military hospital, where authorities read the charges to him. Christopher Grey, a spokesman for the military's investigative branch, said that the government remains convinced Hasan acted alone.

In Washington, President Barack Obama ordered a review to determine whether the government missed signs that Hasan could turn violent. Anti-terrorism investigators had monitored his e-mail exchanges with a virulently anti-American cleric in Yemen and fellow doctors at Walter Reed Medical Center had questioned his apparent sympathies for jihadists. But he was permitted to stay in the military and sent to Fort Hood this summer for eventual deployment.

John Brennan, assistant to the president for counterterrorism and homeland security, will oversee the review. Congress is also investigating how the case was handled. The Senate is scheduled to hold hearings next week.

Grey said investigators were still poring through evidence, noting that the crime scene spreads over several buildings and open areas and some witnesses are still hospitalized.

"Let me reassure the American public, we are looking into every possible reason for this shooting and we are aggressively following every possible lead," Grey said.

Grey, who spoke during a brief press conference here and took no questions, added that additional charges could later be filed against Hasan.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday night that the military had already decided to seek the death penalty, citing an anonymous source. But officials would not confirm that and said the decision would be made by the commanding general of the base, Lt Gen. Robert W. Cone, who received the formal charges that morning.

There have been no military executions since 1961, though eight people are on the military's death row at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Military law requires the president to formally approve any execution.

Analysts say the lack of executions is one sign that military courts can give the defendants more protection than civilian courts. "It will have more protections in regards to [Hasan's] procedural rights than he would in a federal court," Scott L. Silliman, a former military prosecutor who teaches at Duke University, said of the court-martial.

A court-martial is called by a commanding officer - often a general - and presided over by a military judge. It follows similar rules of evidence and discovery as in federal courts.

The jury will consist of at least 12 soldiers whose ranks are greater than Hasan's - meaning jurors will likely be lieutenant colonels or above. Most, if not all, will have advanced degrees and years in the military.

Silliman said that can also be a protection for a defendant facing the death penalty because one or two of those people may have strong resistance to the punishment. He recalled one of his first cases in which one of the 12 jurors held out against a capital sentence.

However, analysts agreed that Hasan's case will be difficult to defend. "This isn't something that was done in the dark of night and we're trying to reconstruct that behavior," said David Brahms, a former brigadier general and military prosecutor. "There are dozens of witnesses."

Under military law, premeditated murder does not require lengthy planning, only "the formation of a specific intent to kill and consideration of the act intended to bring death."

The defense's best bet is to argue Hasan had mental problems that kept him from forming intent, said Geoff Corn, a former military prosecutor who teaches at the South Texas College of Law in Houston. "That's the only hope I think he's got," Corn said.

Analysts expect the military to agree to move the trial but said that anywhere it goes it will be an extraordinary event. Fidell said not since Lt. William Calley was prosecuted for the My Lai massacres in 1971 will a court-martial draw such attention.

Analysts, however, said they were confident a military jury could screen out the publicity and the pain that Hasan allegedly caused to their ranks.

"If anybody's able to listen to the evidence, weigh it and follow the instructions of a judge, I'm confident a military panel will be able to do that," Brahms said.

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