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August 24, 2013

Soldier guilty of murder for Fort Hood shootings

FORT HOOD, Texas — A military jury on Friday convicted Maj. Nidal Hasan in the deadly 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, making the Army psychiatrist eligible for the death penalty in the shocking assault against American troops by one of their own on home soil.

There was never any doubt that Hasan was the gunman. He acknowledged to the jury that he was the one who pulled the trigger on fellow soldiers as they prepared to deploy overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan. And he barely defended himself during a three-week trial.

The unanimous decision on all 13 counts of premeditated murder made Hasan eligible for execution in the sentencing phase that begins Monday.

Hasan, who said he acted to protect Muslim insurgents abroad from American aggression, did not react to the verdict, looking straight at jurors as they announced their findings. After the hearing, relatives of the dead and wounded fought back tears. Some smiled and warmly patted each other’s shoulders as they left court.

Because Hasan never denied his actions, the court-martial was always less about a conviction than it was about ensuring he received a death sentence. From the beginning, the federal government has sought to execute Hasan, believing that any sentence short of a lethal injection would deprive the military and the families of the dead of the justice they have sought for nearly four years.

Autumn Manning, whose husband, retired Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning, was shot six times during the attack, wept when the verdict was read. She said she had been concerned that some charges might be reduced to manslaughter, which would have taken a death sentence off the table.

“This is so emotional,” she said in a telephone interview from Lacey, Wash., where she and her husband live. “I’ve just been crying since we heard it because it was a relief. ... we just wanted to hear the premeditated.”

Hasan, who represented himself after firing his legal team, was also convicted on 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder. He carried out the attack in a crowded waiting room where unarmed troops were making final preparations to deploy. Thirteen people were killed and more than were 30 wounded.

John Galligan, Hasan’s former lead attorney, said Hasan called him to make sure he heard the verdict, and the pair planned to meet later at Fort Hood.

Galligan said the jury did not hear all the facts because the judge refused to allow evidence that helped explain Hasan’s actions.

“Right or wrong, strong or weak, the facts are the facts,” he said. “The jury we heard from only got half the facts.”

The jury of 13 high-ranking officers took about seven hours to reach the verdict. In the next phase, jurors must all agree to give Hasan the death penalty before he can be sent to the military’s death row, which has just five other prisoners. If they do not agree, the 42-year-old could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Hasan, a Virginia-born Muslim, said the attack was a jihad against U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He bristled when the trial judge, Col. Tara Osborn, suggested the shooting rampage could have been avoided were it not for a spontaneous flash of anger.

“It wasn’t done under the heat of sudden passion,” Hasan said before jurors began deliberating. “There was adequate provocation — that these were deploying soldiers that were going to engage in an illegal war.”

All but one of the dead were soldiers, including a pregnant private who curled on the floor and pleaded for her baby’s life.

The attack ended when Hasan was shot in the back by one of the officers responding to the shooting. He is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair.

Hasan planned to continue representing himself in the sentencing phase, which was expected to include more testimony from survivors of the attack inside an Army medical center where soldiers were waiting in long lines to receive immunizations and medical clearance for deployment.

Hasan began the trial by telling jurors he was the gunman, but he said little else, which convinced his court-appointed standby lawyers that Hasan’s only goal was to get a death sentence.

The military called nearly 90 witnesses, but Hasan rested his case without calling a single person to testify in his defense and made no closing argument. Yet he leaked documents during the trial to journalists that revealed him telling military mental health workers that he could “still be a martyr” if executed.

Death sentences are rare in the military and trigger automatic appeals that take decades to play out. Among the final barriers to execution is authorization from the president. No American soldier has been executed since 1961.

Hasan spent weeks planning the Nov. 5, 2009, attack. His preparation included buying the handgun and videotaping a sales clerk showing him how to change the magazine.

He later plunked down $10 at a gun range outside Austin and asked for pointers on how to reload with speed and precision. An instructor said he told Hasan to practice while watching TV or sitting on his couch with the lights off.

When the time came, Hasan stuffed paper towels in the pockets of his cargo pants to muffle the rattling of extra ammo and avoid arousing suspicion. Soldiers testified that Hasan’s rapid reloading made it all but impossible to stop the shooting. Investigators recovered 146 shell casings inside the medical building and dozens more outside, where Hasan shot at the backs of soldiers fleeing toward the parking lot.

In court, Hasan never played the role of an angry extremist. He didn’t get agitated or raise his voice. He addressed Osborn as “ma’am” and occasionally whispered “thank you” when prosecutors, in accordance with the rules of evidence, handed Hasan red pill bottles that rattled with bullet fragments removed from those who were shot.

Prosecutors never charged Hasan as a terrorist — an omission that still galls family members of the slain and survivors, some of whom have sued the U.S. government over missing the warning signs of Hasan’s views before the attack.

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