FORT HOOD, Texas (AP) — With his life on the line, Maj. Nidal Hasan has done nothing to dissuade jurors from giving him a death sentence. When his standby lawyers pleaded in vain to argue on his behalf, he described them as “overzealous.”
Hasan presented no witnesses or evidence during sentencing after being convicted last week of gunning down 13 people in a rampage at this Texas military post.
He has one final chance Wednesday to give a closing argument before his case goes to a panel of military officers that can give him death or life in prison without parole. But so far, the Army psychiatrist’s absent defense has only stoked suspicion that his ultimate goal is martyrdom, in the form of a death sentence that would allow him to fulfill what prosecutors have described as a “jihad duty” under his Islamic faith.
Whatever his ultimate motives, Hasan can tie his standby lawyers’ hands if he wants.
Legal experts say he has a nearly unshakable right under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to represent himself. The military judge, Col. Tara Osborn, has repeatedly warned him about the danger of being his own attorney, and the three lawyers assigned to help him have tried to step in at least twice.
Osborn denied their latest request Tuesday, and twice used the same metaphor.
“Maj. Hasan is the captain of his own ship,” she said.
Any lawyer trying to save Hasan would have a daunting task. In two days of sentencing, prosecutors called widows, parents and other loved ones of the people Hasan killed. They offered a picture of their overwhelming grief and struggle to move forward after his attack. At least one juror appeared visibly emotional during parts of testimony.
Osborn revealed some of what Hasan’s standby attorneys wanted to tell jurors as she reviewed and denied their motion. Among that evidence includes his good behavior in custody before trial and his offer before trial to plead guilty — which was rejected under military rules because prosecutors are seeking a death sentence.
But Hasan was dismissive of his standby attorneys’ attempts. He repeatedly objected, and as one of them asked to argue the motion, he commented that he had “overzealous defense counsel.”
Osborn is “in a tough situation, no matter what happens,” said Victor Hansen, a military law expert at the New England School of Law, in an interview earlier this month. “At the end of the day, the defendant has the absolute right to decide who’s going to represent him, including deciding to represent himself.”
Hasan rested his case shortly after more than a dozen widows, mothers, fathers, children and other relatives of those killed testified about their lives since the attack. They talked of eerily quiet homes, lost futures, alcoholism and the unmatched fear of hearing a knock on the door.
Sheryll Pearson sobbed when shown a photo of her son, Pfc. Michael Pearson, hugging her during his graduation.
“We always wanted to see who he was going to become. Now that was taken away from us,” she said.
Teena Nemelka lost the youngest of her four children, Pfc. Aaron Nemelka, whom she called, “my baby.” She talked about her frantic searches for information in the moments after learning about the Nov. 5, 2009, shooting and about her fear of hearing a knock at the front door of her home.
“You just freeze,” she said. “You don’t want to open that door.”
But the knock came, with “the worst news you could ever hear.”
Philip Warman said the slaying of his wife, Lt. Col. Juanita Warman, “was like I had something ripped out of me.”
“I pretty much drank until the following June,” he said.
He said he checked into a substance abuse center for 28 days, and he had friends remove his weapons from his home because he didn’t trust himself.
Warman now takes the coins distributed during his Alcoholic Anonymous meetings to Arlington National Cemetery, where his wife is buried next to another Fort Hood victim, Maj. Eduardo Caraveo.
“I push them into the ground at my wife’s grave,” he said.
Prosecutors want Hasan to join just five other U.S. service members currently on military death row. That would require a unanimous decision by the jury of 13 military officers, and prosecutors must prove an aggravating factor and present evidence to show the severity of Hasan’s crimes.
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