The Army psychiatrist facing the death penalty in the Nov. 5, 2009, Fort Hood shooting massacre used a minute-long opening statement Tuesday to take responsibility for the killings and declare that as an American soldier he was “on the wrong side of the war against Islam.”
“The evidence will clearly show that I am the shooter,” Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is acting as his own attorney, told a jury of 13 high-ranking officers. “The dead bodies will testify that war is an ugly thing.”
He then apologized, but not for killing unarmed soldiers. “We mujahideen are imperfect Muslims trying to establish a perfect religion,” he said. “I apologize for any mistakes I made in this endeavor.”
At the long-awaited start to his court-martial, 12 witnesses took the stand, and prosecutors disclosed a number of previously unreleased details, including the fact that two hours before the shooting Hasan viewed a jihadist article quoting a Taliban leader who urged his followers not to be “cowards.”
Hasan faces the death penalty on 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in the shooting attack on soldiers undergoing final checks before deploying to war.
Testimony also revealed that just three days before his shooting spree, Hasan received a glowing review from his supervisor at Fort Hood’s Darnall Army Medical Center.
Retired Lt. Col. Ben Phillips declared Hasan’s performance “outstanding” and “best qualified,” in an evaluation that concluded Hasan performed his duties in “a superb manner,” according to Hasan’s Nov. 2 officer evaluation report, which Hasan entered into evidence.
Phillips said he regularly gave such grades to his subordinates and that any other grade on his report would have been a “career killer.” But the performance review echoes other reviews earlier in Hasan’s career in which he was promoted despite what officials have said were troubling signs of his growing radicalization.
And Hasan might have answered a question on the minds of many of the victims scheduled to testify in coming days when he declined to cross-examine a retired staff sergeant who testified he was shot seven times by Hasan. Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford was the first victim to testify, and, like many, had wondered about a potential verbal confrontation with Hasan on the stand. But Hasan quietly told military judge Col. Tara Osborn that he had no questions, as he did with most witnesses.
Lunsford described being ruthlessly hunted by Hasan. He said he was initially shot twice inside the medical building of Fort Hood’s soldier readiness processing complex. After he was able to gather his strength and sprint out a back door, he said Hasan pursued him outside, shooting him five more times.
Lunsford testified that Hasan had visited the soldier readiness center on three consecutive days before the shooting, apparently as part of his preparation for the attack. Prosecutors presented other testimony that seemed to show Hasan’s premeditation, including interactions Hasan had with fellow members of his Killeen mosque on the morning of Nov. 5, 2009.
Pat Sonti, who worshipped at the Killeen Islamic Center with Hasan, testified that the Army psychiatrist acted unusually that morning. The imam usually signals the worshipper who will give the call to prayer, but Hasan ignored the imam and took the microphone in an abrupt manner, Sonti said. After the morning prayers, Hasan “bid goodbye and told the congregation he was going home,” Sonti said.
Hasan planned out even the smallest details of the attack, according to prosecutors. During opening statements, Col. Steve Hendricks told jurors that before the shooting rampage Hasan stuffed his pockets with paper towels to prevent ammunition and magazines from clanking and drawing attention.
Hendricks said Hasan was motivated by two things: a desire to avoid an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan, and a “jihad duty to kill as many American soldiers as he could.”
Prosecutors said Hasan chose Nov. 5 because he knew it was the day that the two mental health units he was likely to deploy with were undergoing their medical processing.
Several witnesses testified about Hasan’s gun and ammunition purchases in the weeks and months before the shooting and his frequent target practice at a Florence shooting range.
John Choats, part-owner of Stan’s Shooting Range, testified that Hasan was initially a poor shooter, but after a couple of days of intensive practice was able to shoot accurately from 100 yards. The shots were “basically all in center mass and in the head” of targets a football field away, Choats said.
And a former Fort Hood soldier who gave Hasan gun-buying advice said that Hasan bought the Belgian-made FN Five-seveN semiautomatic handgun he used in the attack after the former soldier told him that it was easy to control and could “liquefy” flesh and organs.
It’s unclear what Hasan’s defense will be. Osborn has prohibited him from putting on a “defense of others” strategy in which he would argue the killings were justified because he was protecting Taliban forces from “unlawful” violence. During jury selection he made no attempt to retain potential jurors who expressed moral difficulties with the death penalty, leading some analysts to believe he isn’t seeking to avoid death.
But Hasan might have given an indication of a strategy during an exchange with his former boss Phillips, in which he referenced emails he sent about Fort Hood soldiers who had talked of pouring gasoline into the Iraqi water supply and killing women and children. Hasan was quickly cut off by Osborn, who said it was outside the scope of Phillips’ cross-examination. Osborn said he could ask Phillips more if he calls him as a defense witness.