Barring a last-minute roadblock, the court-martial of Maj. Nidal Hasan will begin this week at Fort Hood.
When judge Col. Tara Osborn calls the proceedings to order Wednesday, it will be exactly three years and seven months since the horrific shooting on post that left 13 people dead and 32 wounded.
That it has taken so long to bring Hasan to trial is no doubt a source of frustration for many in the Fort Hood community — including the shooting victims’ families, as well as the survivors.
The long road to this week’s jury selection has been marked by intense legal maneuvering on the part of both the defense counsel and the prosecution.
Some of the issues that had to be settled included whether the trial should be moved to another venue, whether to include testimony from a witness who had labeled Hasan “a homegrown terrorist” and of course, whether Hasan should be allowed to wear a beard in court — a violation of military code.
After all was said and done, the trial was kept at Fort Hood, the testimony of the disputed expert was excluded and Hasan was allowed to keep his beard.
That beard ruling was rendered by the nation’s highest military appeals court, which also removed the initial judge, who had favored shaving the defendant.
Now, Osborn, the new presiding judge, must decide whether Hasan can represent himself during his court-martial, as he requested last week. Before ruling on the request, Osborn ordered Hasan to undergo a medical exam to determine whether he is physically up to the task.
Hasan is paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair after being shot multiple times by Fort Hood police during the Nov. 5, 2009, shooting on post. He reportedly has difficulty sitting for long periods of time.
The results of that exam, as well as Osborn’s ruling on Hasan’s request to fire his attorneys and serve as his own defense counsel, will be discussed at Monday’s hearing.
The Army has gone to great lengths to establish and prepare its case. How the defense counsel proceeds — especially if Hasan is in charge — remains to be seen.
The accused shooter has repeatedly sought to plead guilty to the 13 counts of murder, but since this is a death-penalty case, military law will not allow the judge to accept a guilty plea.
It’s possible that Hasan wants to be found guilty and therefore will offer a minimal defense during the trial. Another possibility is that Hasan wants to use the court-martial as a forum for his political views, although it’s likely the judge would severely restrict such behavior. It’s also possible that in firing his lawyers, Hasan is trying to set up a potential appeal on the grounds that he had inadequate legal representation.
Osborn has advised the defendant that serving as his own counsel will be much more taxing than just sitting with his attorneys. Undoubtedly, she will make sure Hasan also understands the possible legal consequences of his request, should she grant it.
Of course, the judge could deny Hasan’s request, but if she does so solely for health reasons, she runs the risk of having the verdict overturned on appeal, as some experts have cautioned.
So, it now appears likely that the court-martial will get underway this week — more than 15 months after its originally scheduled start date of March 2012.
It was already destined to be a media circus, especially once testimony gets underway on July 1.
With the strong possibility that Hasan, as sole defense counsel, could question the witnesses — some of whom he is accused of shooting — and have a hand in selecting the jurors who will determine his fate, the media hype could be even more intense.
But what must not be lost in the glare of national attention is the fact that this court-martial is ultimately about rendering justice for the victims, the survivors and their families. That’s what they’ve been waiting for during the past 3½ years — and they deserve a trial that is as dignified, professional and as equitable as is humanly possible.
No doubt, Col. Osborn will make sure all the pertinent questions are asked and that all precautions are taken before setting this court-martial in motion.
Having done that, it’s time to move forward with these proceedings.
As it is, justice has been deferred for far too long.