HOUSTON— A military judge at Fort Hood, in central Texas, has rejected a request to disallow the death penalty in the case of Major Nidal Hasan, who is accused of murdering 13 people and attempting to murder 32 others in a shooting spree in 2009. The judge is still considering a number of other defense requests that could have a profound impact on the case.
The presiding judge in the case against Major Nidal Hasan, Colonel Tara Osborn, ruled Wednesday that the death penalty will still apply, rejecting a request by defense lawyers that seemed aimed at a plea bargain. In a separate request, Hasan's lawyers asked for consideration of a guilty plea, but the judge may not be able to grant that since the military code does not allow a guilty plea in a case in which the death penalty could be imposed.
Geoffrey Corn, a former military prosecutor and law professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston, says Judge Osborn will carefully review all defense requests in spite of public frustration over the length of the process.
“There is no such thing as an open-and-shut capital murder case, especially in the military," said Corn. "The process, the rights of the accused, have to be scrupulously protected and honored, and there is no way that a case like this is going to be fast.”
Corn says any attempt to bypass defense requests could open the way to appeals, which could take years to resolve. Witnesses say Hasan opened fire on soldiers who were about to be deployed to Afghanistan at a Fort Hood facility on November 5, 2009. Fort Hood civilian police shot him four times, leaving him paralyzed below the waist.
Hasan's lawyers are also asking the military to pay for a media specialist to help the defense show that news media coverage has prejudiced the case.
The case was held up last year over orders that Hasan shave off his beard, which he says is an expression of his Islamic faith.
The military's highest appeals court removed the judge who made that order after determining that he had shown bias. Judge Osborn has made only brief mention of the beard so far, telling the defense team to prepare a statement that can be issued to the jury to prevent any prejudice based on Hasan's appearance.
Corn says an attempt by the judge or Fort Hood commander to enforce military grooming codes at this point would only open the way for Hasan to file an appeal based on federal statutes that protect religious freedom.
“He probably would file a suit in federal district court, and he would ask a federal judge, a civilian judge, to issue an injunction against the military commander on the theory that the military regulation and the order violates this federal statute. That would take another six months at least," he said.
Corn says that if Judge Osborn can rule on all the defense requests by the end of the week, with no further procedural delays, jury selection for the trial would likely begin by April or May.