With his life on the line, convicted Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan will represent himself as the sentencing phase begins today.
The trial within a trial will decide whether the 42-year-old Army psychiatrist remains in military prison for life or dies by lethal injection.
Killeen resident Michelle Harper, a witness injured during the shooting, is torn on how Hasan should be punished.
“Part of me says he should get the death penalty for what he did, and part of me says he should have life without parole,” Harper said.
Many, including Hasan’s standby legal team, believe Hasan is actively pursuing a death sentence. In 2010, he told a sanity board death by execution would make him a martyr.
With that in mind, Harper said it is hard to decide what constitutes justice in this case.
“Maybe him suffering for the rest of his life, like we are for the rest of our lives, is justice,” Harper said.
The sentencing phase will give family members of all 13 killed a chance to confront Hasan.
Government prosecutors said Friday they will call 19 witnesses: 16 family members representing the 12 soldiers and one civilian killed in the attack, along with three surviving victims Hasan shot in the Nov. 5, 2009, attack.
The presiding judge, Col. Tara Osborn, told Hasan it would be “unwise” to continue into this “critical stage” acting as his own attorney.
“I want to make sure your choice is made with your eyes wide open,” Osborn said. “You’re 42 years old, you’re highly educated, you have a medical degree, but you are not legally trained.”
Hasan at any time could ask for his standby counsel to take the reins, which Osborn mentioned again Friday, reminding Hasan his lead attorney, Lt. Col Kris R. Poppe, has experience in death penalty cases.
To sentence Hasan to death, the jury of 13 officers, who all outrank Hasan, must make three unanimous votes, according to former military lawyer and law professor Geoffrey Corn.
First, they must vote there is an aggravating factor to the underlying capital murder conviction.
In this case, prosecutors will use the fact that there were multiple killings to show aggravation.
Second, jurors must vote that aggravating factors outweigh any evidence or testimony Hasan enters showing extenuating circumstances or mitigation.
Third, the jury, a group of nine colonels, three lieutenant colonels and one major, must unanimously vote to put the accused to death.
Hasan can make an unsworn statement or testify during sentencing.
Making a statement would give him the advantage of explaining his motives without facing cross-examination from the prosecution.
It will be Hasan’s last opportunity to tell the court he deliberately attacked Fort Hood soldiers in order to protect fellow Muslims and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, a defense he was denied using during the trial.
Hasan’s former defense attorney, John Galligan, said until this point, the trial has been “one sided” because of the judge’s refusal to allow Hasan his “defense of others” strategy.
“The military effectively denied the defendant’s ability to put on a defense,” Galligan said.
Galligan, a Belton-based defense attorney and retired colonel, is opposed to the death penalty and said Hasan has been treated unfairly. He pointed to Friday’s sentencing of an Army staff sergeant who killed 16 civilians, including women and children, in Afghanistan last year as existence of the Army’s bias against Muslims.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was sentenced to life in prison without parole after reaching a plea agreement with Army prosecutors.
Hasan offered to plead guilty multiple times leading up to the trial. But Fort Hood prosecutors would not drop the possible death sentence.
Contact Philip Jankowski at email@example.com or (254) 501-7553. Follow him on Twitter at KDHcrime.