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Pace picks up in Hood shooting trial

Aug. 9, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Staff Sgt. Joy Clark of the 467th Combat Stress Control Detachment takes a moment in 2010 to run her fingers over the engravings of the names of her fellow soldiers at a ceremony commemorating the one-year anniversary of the worst mass shooting on a U.S. military base, in Fort Hood, Texas. Maj. Nidal Hasan's court-martial is continuing at Fort Hood.
Staff Sgt. Joy Clark of the 467th Combat Stress Control Detachment takes a moment in 2010 to run her fingers over the engravings of the names of her fellow soldiers at a ceremony commemorating the one-year anniversary of the worst mass shooting on a U.S. military base, in Fort Hood, Texas. Maj. Nidal Hasan's court-martial is continuing at Fort Hood. (Sonya N. Hebert / The Dallas Morning News via AP)
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FORT HOOD, TEXAS — Since his arrest in the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Maj. Nidal Hasan has challenged most everything about the case: restrictions on how he can pray, orders to shave his beard, the court-assigned attorneys forced to help his defense.

Yet the Army psychiatrist has barely contested anything in the first week of his long-awaited trial.

Hasan isn't questioning witnesses as they describe being shot, seeing their comrades killed and watching him open fire inside a crowded building at the Texas military base. He rarely objects. His opening statement lasted less than 2 minutes as he told jurors the evidence would show he was the shooter.

The result has been a swift procession of witnesses, fueling speculation that the trial — which the judge originally said could take several months — would wrap up far sooner at Fort Hood's heavily guarded courthouse.

Hasan — who is acting as his own attorney — is accused of killing 13 people and wounding more than 30 others during the attack on Nov. 5, 2009, that remains the worst mass shooting on a U.S. military installation. The military attorneys assigned to help him believe he wants a death sentence, and two of them spent Friday drafting an appeal after the trial judge refused to let them take over or scale back their duties.

But that didn't break Hasan's impassive stare or silence as prosecutors continued to zip through witnesses, bringing the total this week to more than 40. The judge even offered Hasan a chance to speak up, after a soldier pounded the witness stand to simulate how rapidly Hasan fired his laser-sighted handgun.

"An objection of that description, Mr. Hasan?" Col. Tara Osborn asked Friday.

"No objection," Hasan said.

Hasan, 42, has indicated that he plans to call just two witnesses. Since the trial began Tuesday, he has cross-examined only two prosecution witnesses— his former supervisor and a member of his former mosque — and posed only brief questions.

He also didn't question the roughly dozen witnesses who testified Friday about the chaotic, bloody scene the day of the shooting.

Capt. Brandy Mason recalled being shot but initially thinking it was only a sharp pain.

"I kind of sat there looking dumbfounded," Mason told jurors. "I didn't think it was real. We sat there and looked at (Hasan), like 'Really?' Then somebody started screaming, 'Training or not, get down! Get down!'"

Staff Sgt. Joy Clark said she checked for vital signs of soldiers lying dead near her. "I had thought about possibly throwing a chair at the shooter but witnessed someone else do that and get shot," Clark said.

Sgt. 1st Class Paul Martin recalled bolting out a set of double doors and then running a zigzag pattern to make him a less easy target. "I said he'll have to shoot me again, but I know I'm getting out of this building," Martin testified.

Hasan objected only to one witness, Logan Burnett, as the former Army specialist described how he had undergone 20 surgeries and had three more to go after being shot three times during the attack.

Hasan interrupted Burnett, saying "aggravation evidence has its place," meaning the testimony wasn't about the alleged crime but rather its impact, which is more appropriate to cite during sentencing. Osborn sustained that objection.

How Hasan would defend himself was the biggest mystery heading into the trial. The American-born Muslim wanted to argue that the killings were in "defense of others," namely members of the Taliban fighting Americans in Afghanistan. But the judge denied that strategy.

His mostly silent defense so far may prompt prosecutors to scale back their case, said Victor Hansen, a former military prosecutor who now teaches at the New England School of Law.

"You may see fewer witnesses called," Hansen said Friday. "Instead of hearing from maybe two or three forensic experts, you may only hear from one or two."

Prosecutors said they would meet Friday night to discuss their strategy.

But Hasan was hardly a pushover for prosecutors ahead of the trial. He cited his religion in refusing to shave his beard, which violates military rules, and the fight delayed the trial last year and led to the former judge being removed. Other delays came when he dismissed his former defense attorney and then his Army-appointed defense attorneys, who were forced to stay on as standby advisers.

What remains to be seen is whether Hasan is saving any forceful arguments for later in the trial or whether he's offering the path of least resistance.

His standby attorneys think it's the latter. After the trial's first day, they accused Hasan of trying to secure himself a death sentence. Hasan's lead standby attorney, Lt. Col. Kris Poppe, told the judge that supporting such a "repugnant" defense strategy violates their rules of professional conduct, but Hasan called those accusations a "twist of the facts."

The judge decided the fight was simply a difference in strategy, and she told the standby attorneys to remain in their advisory roles. And any appeal of that ruling would likely be dismissed, said Jeff Corn, a law professor at South Texas College of Law, predicted would likely be dismissed.

"As sympathetic as I am to him (Poppe) and the miserable position he's in, I think he's stuck. The law is clear: If you are a standby attorney for a pro-se defendant and the defendant wants to make decisions tactically disastrous, that's his prerogative," Corn said.

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