Trial in jeopardy as lawyers claim Fort Hood killer has ‘death wish’

Judge orders legal team to continue helping Major Nidal Hasan lead his own defence in military trial

The military judge in the trial of the soldier accused in the Fort Hood shooting rampage was struggling to keep it on track today after rejecting demands from assisting defence lawyers that they be allowed to wash their hands of the defendant because he appeared to have a death wish.

Nidal Hasan, a US-born Muslim, admits he killed 13 unarmed soldiers and wounded more than 30 others at the Fort Hood, Texas US Army base in November 2009. He previously told the court he “switched sides” in what he called a US war on Islam.

On just the third day of the trial, Judge Tara Osborn, an Army colonel, reaffirmed the right of Major Hasan to lead his own defence and told the lawyers appointed by the court to continue assisting him. The lawyers, who called their situation “repugnant”, vowed to appeal the ruling.

“We believe your order is causing us to violate our rules of professional conduct,” Major Hasan’s lead standby lawyer, Lt-Col Kris Poppe, told the judge after her ruling. The confusion in the courtroom at Fort Hood, on the same base where the 2009 shooting took place, may open the door to future appeals by Major Hasan which could force the government into trying the case all over again.

Major Hasan gave a brief opening statement on Tuesday, but he has since been largely silent, foregoing opportunities to object to prosecution statements or cross-examine prosecution witnesses, including survivors of the shooting.  He has acknowledged being the shooter and attempted to plead guilty. However, under US military law a not-guilty plea is required if the death penalty is being sought – as is the case here. On Wednesday, the standby defence team told the judge that Major Hasan was deliberately encouraging the jury of 13 military officers to convict him on all charges and therefore send him to death row. For that reason they no longer wanted to be part of it. “It becomes clear his goal is to remove impediments or obstacles to the death penalty and is working toward a death penalty,” Lt- Col Poppe told the judge. That strategy, he argued, “is repugnant to defence counsel and contrary to our professional obligations”.

The confrontation between the lawyers and Judge Osborn briefly threatened to bring proceedings to a halt. “I don’t envy her. She’s on the horns of a dilemma here,” said Richard Rosen, a law professor at Texas Tech University and former military prosecutor who has been at the trial. “Whatever she does is potentially dangerous, at least from the view of an appellate court.”

After a brief recess, Judge Osborn insisted Major Hasan had the right to conduct his own defence and therefore had the final word on strategy. In doing so, she also reaffirmed the obligation of Lt-Col Poppe and his team to remain at Major Hasan’s side regardless of their discomfort over his choices. The last time the US military executed one of its own was in 1961 when a soldier was hanged for rape and attempted murder.

The lead prosecutor, Colonel Michael Mulligan, queried the motives of the standby defence team, arguing it would be “absurd” for Major Hasan to argue now that he wasn’t responsible for the killings or to contest the facts of the case. “I’m really perplexed as to how it’s caused such a moral dilemma.”

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