After 14 months of trial delays — and three-and-half years after the Nov. 2009 mass shooting that convulsed this Army post — the court-martial of accused shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan will begin May 29, military judge Col. Tara Osborn decided Thursday.
Osborn set aside four weeks for jury selection and scheduled trial testimony to begin July 1.
Lawyers expect the trial phase to last two to three months, with as many as 270 prosecution witnesses.
“I want to set a court date that there is a strong possibility we can stick to,” Osborn said. The court-martial was originally supposed to begin in March 2012, but has been delayed several times, in large part due to legal wrangling over a beard Hasan grew in violation of Army grooming regulations.
The Army psychiatrist has been charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in connection with the 2009 shooting rampage at the Central Texas Army post. In December, Osborn replaced previous military judge Col. Gregory Gross, who was removed by a military appellate court for feuding with Hasan over his beard. Osborn has since said she does not consider the beard a legal issue.
Hasan’s attorneys are hoping that the court-martial won’t take place at Fort Hood. Osborn did not rule on change of venue motions and set the next pre-trial hearing for March 20.
Lt. Col. Kris Poppe, Hasan’s military attorney, argued Thursday that extensive “inflammatory” media coverage in Central Texas and a general air of hostility toward Hasan makes Fort Hood “the worst place” to hold the court-martial. As an alternative, Poppe suggested Fort Meade, Md., which he said is more accustomed to high-profile trials and would be a less hostile atmosphere. Fort Meade is currently home to the court-martial of accused Wikileaks collaborator Pfc. Bradley Manning.
As evidence of the hostile environment around Fort Hood, Poppe pointed to the extensive security measures officials have used to transport Hasan to and from the Bell County Jail, as well as the extra security personnel and dozens of large cargo containers are stacked around the Fort Hood courthouse. “That puts an imprint of guilt on Maj. Hasan that he is so dangerous, that he is someone to be feared that all those security measures are necessary,” Poppe said. Prosecutors said intensive security measures would be implemented no matter where the court-martial is held.
Hasan’s attorneys also sought a new jury pool, saying that thecurrent pool of panel members, as jurors are known in military court, are also tainted by pre-trial publicity. The panel pool was originally made up of 140 Army officers, including 20 from Fort Hood, but has been whittled down to about 100 after excusals. Hasan’s attorneys argued that the panel should be made up of officers from other military branches, who the attorneys say may have read less coverage of the shootings than those in the Army. Such a change would be unprecedented in military legal history, lawyers said.
On Thursday, Osborn again denied another defense request for a media expert to analyze the impact of pre-trial publicity on the Fort Hood community and within the Army.
Next month, Osborn could also rule on a motion that could potentially reduce the scope of the court-martial. Hasan is seeking to plead guilty to the charges, but military justice rules don’t allow Osborn to accept guilty pleas on charges that could bring the death penalty. On Thursday, Osborn asked lawyers to submit written opinions on whether Hasan can legally plead guilty to the charges, or to lesser charges.
Under one scenario, Hasan could plead guilty to unpremeditated murder. If Osborn accepted that plea, prosecutors would then only have to prove the premeditated aspect, but not the murder charges. Hasan would still be eligible for the death penalty, but could use his guilty plea to seek leniency during the sentencing phase.