Considering it took almost four years to bring accused Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan to trial, it’s more than a little surprising that court proceedings in the court-martial could wrap up in the next three weeks.
This is especially true, since prosecutors originally estimated the trial would take up to three months to conclude.
Initially, the prosecution announced plans to call about 270 witnesses to the stand to testify against Hasan, accused of killing 13 people and wounding 32 others in a shooting rampage at the post’s Soldier Readiness Processing Center in November 2009.
Last week, the number of prosecution witnesses was estimated at fewer than half the original number. As of Friday afternoon, 44 had been called. This is particularly noteworthy, since no witnesses were called Wednesday, when the presiding judge, Lt. Col. Tara Osborn, recessed the trial after receiving a request from Hasan’s standby defense counsel to be either reinstated or released from the case altogether.
At this point, a quick resolution to the trial would seem to be in the best interests of all involved.
Testimony from prosecution witnesses has been detailed and graphic, painting a vivid image of the chaos and the carnage at the shooting scene.
It was apparent early on that Hasan’s guilt was never in doubt. Indeed, the defendant gave an opening statement Tuesday, in which he said, “The evidence will clearly show that I am the shooter.”
So, at this point the only question is whether the jury of military officers will sentence Hasan to death — a punishment that requires unanimous agreement among the jurors.
Hasan’s former defense counsel, Lt. Col. Kris Poppe, told Osborn he believes the defendant is throwing his case in order to get the death penalty, though Hasan disagreed. Still, Osborn ordered counsel to continue representing Hasan on a standby basis.
The judge finds herself in a difficult position. She authorized Hasan to represent himself in the trial, as allowed by military law. That potentially opens the door to an appeal based on insufficient legal representation, though Osborn cautioned Hasan repeatedly about the risks of self-representation.
Osborn also warned Hasan that if he crossed the line of what was allowable during testimony, she would order his standby defense counsel to take over the case. With that in mind, she couldn’t accept the attorneys’ request to withdraw last week without derailing the trial.
Hasan has repeatedly challenged the court with his requests, including his wish to wear a beard in violation of military regulations. As with Hasan’s request for self-representation, the court’s rulings were no doubt influenced by the potential for an appeal if his requests were denied.
On other issues, however, Osborn denied Hasan’s requests, such as noting his objection to wearing an Army uniform in court. He also asked to present a “defense of others” strategy in court. But Osborn disallowed that strategy, ruling that defense failed as a matter of law.
Hasan has largely let the prosecution present its case without objection, which is largely why the trial is moving so quickly — and also why his counsel charged he is trying to throw the case.
If the death penalty is assessed in this trial, it may bring closure to the victims’ families and survivors of the Fort Hood shooting, but it may be a hollow victory.
The sentence will be appealed automatically, as in all military death-penalty cases. A further appeal could be filed on the basis of his self-representation and his defense counsel’s unwillingness to proceed on his behalf.
Considering that former Fort Hood soldier Dwight Loving is still awaiting execution for his 1989 murder conviction for the killing of two taxi drivers in Killeen, a quick execution for Hasan would be highly unlikely.
Hasan’s trial may, in fact, come to an end sooner than many expected, but the subsequent appeals are likely to continue for years to come.