The fact that former Maj. Nidal Hasan was sentenced to death by a Fort Hood jury last week came as little surprise to those who followed the trial.
Over the course of 13 days of court testimony, the evidence was overwhelming that the Army psychiatrist had committed premeditated murder in killing 12 service members and one civilian in his Nov. 5, 2009, rampage on post.
And during the sentencing phase last week, shooting survivors and victims’ family members offered emotional and heart-wrenching testimony of how Hasan’s murderous actions tore apart families and shattered lives.
In the end, the 13-member jury needed just two hours to agree on sentencing Hasan to death.
Suddenly, it was over.
As Hasan was whisked back to his cell at Bell County Jail to await transfer to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the victims’ families expressed relief that the trial was behind them. One said she was happy and satisfied with the death sentence. Another noted that it was important that the nation hear the firsthand testimony of the families and survivors, “to understand the horror and courage” of that day.
Indeed, the conclusion of the oft-delayed trial brings some closure to the survivors, family members and the Fort Hood community.
Still, there are some who would debate whether the death penalty was the right sentence to impose — especially since Hasan reportedly had sought death in order to become a martyr in accordance with his Muslim extremist ideology.
However, it was not about whether the death sentence was the most logical or practical punishment. It was the correct punishment. Given the preponderance of evidence, the strength of the prosecution’s case and the lack of a defense by Hasan, a death sentence is the only punishment that fit the crime.
Still, it’s likely the Fort Hood jurors were aware that Hasan won’t face execution soon, perhaps not even in the next decade. An appeal is automatic in the military justice system, and the appeals process is decidedly ponderous. After Fort Hood’s commander reviews a written record of the trial, he will have the option to grant Hasan clemency — though that outcome is highly unlikely. Then the record will be studied by military appeals courts at two levels. Finally, the sitting U.S. president must sign off on the execution before it can take place.
Hasan’s case is unusual in that he represented himself in court, even though he was strongly advised against it by the presiding judge, Col. Tara Osborn. And while that fact alone may not be the basis for an appeal to the Supreme Court, the fact that his legal team asked to be removed from the case on more than one occasion may be grounds for a judicial review.
Given all these factors and Hasan’s compromised health as a result of being shot in the back and paralyzed during his assault, it’s more likely he’ll die in prison than at the hands of an executioner.
That again raises the question of whether it was necessary for prosecutors to seek the death penalty.
By some estimates, the cost of the trial was in the neighborhood of $6 million — factoring in the cost of Hasan’s jail accommodations over 3½ years, his special trailer near the Fort Hood courthouse, the cost of transporting witnesses to and from Fort Hood, paying expert witnesses and renovations to the court facility on post.
All of that — plus the cost of any future appeals — could have been avoided if Hasan had been allowed to plead guilty to the murders, as he repeatedly requested, and given an automatic life sentence without parole.
But that also would have prevented the survivors and victims’ families from being able to tell their personal stories in court, to share their grief and anguish, to confront the man who forever altered their lives.
So, was the trial’s outcome worth all the government’s time, trouble and expense?
Maybe we should ask the shooting survivors and the victims’ families. Because honestly, theirs are the opinions that matter most.