HOUSTON— The trial of accused Fort Hood, Texas, shooter Major Nidal Hasan came to a halt Wednesday when the three standby defense attorneys assisting him told the judge Hasan is trying to get the death penalty. The judge may have to reconsider her previous decision to allow Hasan to defend himself.
Defense attorneys appointed by the court to help defend Major Hasan asked presiding Judge Colonel Tara Osborn to modify their role because they say the defendant is actively seeking conviction and the death penalty. Lead defense attorney Lieutenant Colonel Kris Poppe said they should not be forced to assist him in achieving that.
Hasan expressed disagreement with the assessment by his attorneys, and Judge Osborn said she found their request confusing. She told the attorneys who had described Hasan's performance in court as "repugnant" and "inadequate" that it could be that they just disagree with his strategy. Osborn then ordered a recess until Thursday so she could consider the matter.
Jeffrey Addicott, a military law expert at the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, says the attorneys are probably right about Hasan wanting to be executed, but adds the attorneys must also think of their professional responsibility to prevent the death penalty from being imposed on their client.
"Their very role is to protect his rights, so instead of suggesting things to Hasan, which they could as standby counsel, I believe that they are asking the judge, 'Look, we are just going to be standby, if he wants to ask us a question, we will respond to that, but we don't want to participate in a circus,"' said Addicott.
In early June, Judge Osborn granted Hasan's request to defend himself, but required his legal team to remain in court on standby to assist him with procedural questions and research. Not having such assistance available, legal experts say, could open the way for a possible appeal later, even though Hasan chose to defend himself. But, if the judge agrees that Hasan's handling of his own defense has been faulty, she could reverse her previous decision and bring the appointed lawyers back to full duty.
Hasan has not followed a standard defense strategy. Several weeks ago, he asked for, and was denied, permission to use a "defense of others" argument that the shooting was justified as an attack on soldiers who were, in his view, fighting against Islam in Afghanistan and Iraq. In court on Tuesday, he admitted to having committed the crime and asked few questions of witnesses in cross-examination.