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The death penalty is rare in the military

Sep. 1, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Nidal Malik Hasan
This courtroom sketch shows Army Maj. Nidal Hasan during his court-martial. The court-martial panel on Aug. 28 sentenced him to death. (Brigitte Woosley/The Associated Press)
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A military court-martial panel on Aug. 28 sentenced to death the Army major responsible for the deadliest attack ever on a U.S. military installation.

The 13 senior military officers who served on the panel days earlier had convicted Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan of 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas.

But it could be years before Hasan is executed — if the sentence is ever carried out.

The death penalty is rare in the military. The appeals process is automatic and protracted.

Here are five things you need to know:

Punishable offenses

More than a dozen offenses are punishable by death.

Those include premeditated and felony murder, rape, aiding the enemy and espionage, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. During wartime, the list grows to include desertion, assault of a superior officer and acting as a spy.

The process

The court-martial convening authority decides whether to seek the death penalty. The commanding officer then selects the panel, which must include at least 12 service members; the accused may require that at least a third are enlisted. Both the conviction and sentence must be unanimous. If one member of the panel disagrees, the death penalty cannot be handed down.

A rare punishment

The last military execution occurred more than 50 years ago.

In 1961, an Army private convicted of rape and attempted murder was hanged at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Air Force last carried out the death penalty in 1954. Two airmen were executed for the rape and murder of a Guam citizen.

Possibility for appeal

Most death sentences are overturned on appeal.

Eleven of 16 death sentences handed down since 1984 have been overturned on appeal. Hasan brings the total number of service members on military death row to six. Senior Airman Andrew Witt, who was convicted in the 2005 stabbing death a fellow airman and his wife and the attempted killing of second colleague, is the only Air Force member awaiting execution. However, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals recently ruled to throw out the death sentence in Witt’s case. The government has appealed the ruling.

The president's role

As commander-in-chief, the president must sign off on the execution. In 2008, then-President Bush became the first in more than half a century to approve the death penalty, said retired Army Judge Advocate General Geoffrey Corn, a law professor at South Texas College. That was in the case of Army Pvt. Ronald Gray, convicted in a rape and murder spree in the 1980s. However, a federal judge issued a stay of execution in the case. He remains on death row.

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