The Army psychiatrist serving as his own lawyer in the bloody Fort Hood rampage called himself a “mujahideen” and told a military jury Tuesday the dead bodies he left in his wake in the 2009 incident “show that war is an ugly thing.”
Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan began his court martial with an opening statement less than two minutes long as the military trial began under heavy security at the Texas base. He faces the death penalty for the Nov. 5, 2009 rampage, in which 13 people were killed and where witnesses said Hasan yelled “Alahu Akhbar!” as he sprayed gunfire at unarmed fellow soldiers.
“The evidence presented in this trial will only show one side, that I was on the wrong side, and then I switched sides,” Hasan said. “We the Mujahideen are imperfect Muslims trying to establish the perfect religion in the land of the supreme god.”
Hasan said “the evidence will clearly show that I am the shooter. The dead bodies will show that war is an ugly thing.”
It was not clear how the 42-year-old Hasan plans to fashion his stance into a defense. Hasan had wanted to argue that he shot U.S. troops to protect Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, but the judge forbade the American-born Muslim and former Army psychiatrist from using that defense.
Earlier, prosecutor Col. Steve Henricks said Hasan hoped to “kill as many soldiers as he could.”
Henricks told the military jury Hasan picked the date of the attack for a specific reason, though he did not immediately reveal details.
The trial is expected to take weeks and possibly months. Taking the witness stand will be many of the more than 30 people who were wounded, plus dozens of others who were inside the post’s Soldier Readiness Processing Center, where some service members were preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.
Hasan has never denied carrying out the attack, and the facts of the case are mostly settled. But while Hasan characterized his actions as an act of holy war, the Obama administration has called the massacre an act of “workplace violence,” refusing to classify it as terrorism.
The defendant, who was shot in the back by officers responding to the attack, is now paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. He requires 15- to 20-minute stretching breaks about every four hours, and he has to lift himself off his wheelchair for about a minute every half hour to avoid developing sores.
Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford, who was wounded, is expected to testify. He said he looked forward to seeing Hasan, in a way.
“I’m not going to dread anything. That’s a sign of fear,” Lunsford said. “That man strikes no fear in my heart. He strikes no fear in my family. What he did to me was bad. But the biggest mistake that he made was I survived. So he will see me again.”
But Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning said he dreaded the expected confrontation.
“I have to keep my composure and not go after the guy,” said Manning, a mental health specialist who was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan with Hasan. “I’m not afraid of him, obviously. He’s a paralyzed guy in a wheelchair, but it’s sickening that he’s still living and breathing.”
The judge, Col. Tara Osborn, told jurors to prepare for a trial that could last several months.
On Tuesday, guards stood watch with long assault rifles outside the courthouse. A long row of shipping freight containers, stacked three high, created a fence around the building, which was almost entirely hidden by 15-foot-tall stacks of heavy, shock-absorbing barriers that extend to the roofline.
The government has said that Hasan, a U.S.-born Muslim, had sent more than a dozen emails starting in December 2008 to Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical U.S.-born Islamic cleric killed by a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
John Galligan, Hasan’s former lead attorney, said Monday that he still keeps in touch with Hasan but wasn’t sure what he would say Tuesday, if anything.
Hasan has indicated recently that he still wants his views to be heard. He has released statements to media outlets about his views on the Islamic legal code known as Sharia and how it conflicts with American democracy.
If he is convicted and sentenced to death, it will most likely be decades before he makes it to the death chamber, if at all. The military has not executed an active-duty soldier since 1961. Five men are on the military death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., but none is close to an execution date.
Authorities in the military justice system have also struggled to avoid reversed sentences on appeal. Eleven of the 16 death sentences handed down by military juries in the last 30 years have been overturned, according to an academic study and court records.
That’s one reason why prosecutors and the military judge have been careful leading up to trial, said Geoffrey Corn, a professor at the South Texas College of Law and former military lawyer.
“The public looks and says, `This is an obviously guilty defendant. What’s so hard about this?”‘ Corn said. “What seems so simple is in fact relatively complicated.”
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