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Ft. Hood shooting trial set to begin amid tight security

August 05, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

FT. HOOD, Texas -- At a brief, final pretrial hearing for accused Ft. Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a military judge questioned jurors Monday about their exposure to media coverage of the case and any potential scheduling conflicts before the start of the trial. 

Testimony at the court-martial is scheduled to begin Tuesday after years of delays.

More than a dozen relatives of shooting victims filed into court for the hearing, filling a row and a half of the seats in the gallery.

PHOTOS: Shootings at Ft. Hood

Military judge Col. Tara Osborn, questioned the 13 jurors -- including nine colonels, three lieutenant colonels and one major -- about whether they had followed coverage of the case, and found no cause for concern.

The jury includes two women, one of whom is also the sole African American juror. As the highest-ranking member of the jury, she is serving as "president," or leader of the panel.

Osborn said the court-martial is expected to last at least a month, with daily hearings from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Security has been stepped up at the base's courthouse, with added container-style barriers and armed guards in place. Hasan, 42, is often flown in for hearings, arriving by helicopter from the local jail where he is being held. A Ft. Hood spokesman would not confirm whether he was flown in Monday, citing security concerns.

Hasan is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted murder in connection with the 2009 attack at the central Texas Army base, during which he allegedly shouted “Allahu akbar” -- Arabic for "God is great."

If convicted, the American-born Muslim faces a possible death sentence.

Hasan, a former Army psychiatrist, is representing himself after rejecting both his military attorneys and a previous civilian attorney. The judge ordered his military lawyers to stay on to advise him. In defiance of military rules, he has successfully fought not to wear a dress uniform at trial and to appear with a full beard, in accordance with his religious beliefs.

Hasan has admitted to the shooting and attempted to plead guilty. More recently, he requested to mount a “defense of others” legal strategy, reasoning that he was attacking U.S. soldiers about to be deployed to prevent them from harming Taliban leaders overseas, whom he supports.

Osborn rejected that defense in June.

Last month, the jury was seated. Its members are of Hasan’s rank or higher and were drawn from throughout the military.

Since then, the judge has ruled on whether certain controversial pieces of evidence can be admitted at trial, including supposed evidence of Hasan's radicalization.

At a hearing Friday, Osborn ruled that prosecutors can admit evidence that Hasan searched for Jihadist websites before the shooting and was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan. However, she ruled that they cannot introduce evidence that Hasan wanted to become a conscientious objector.

Prosecutors also wanted to admit an academic presentation in defense of suicide bombing that Hasan made before the shooting, as well as presentations about soldiers conflicted about their military service because of their religion. Osborn deferred ruling on that request until prosecutors present evidence at trial that places such information in context.

Hasan joined Fox News in asking the judge to compel the government to allow him to give an on-camera interview, but Osborn said that was beyond her jurisdiction.

The Los Angeles Times has requested interviews with Hasan, but a Ft. Hood spokesman said military commanders have so far refused to allow such talks at the base or at Bell County Jail, where Hasan is being held, due to concerns that Hasan might make statements incriminating himself and jeopardizing his chance of receiving a fair trial.

Osborn told Hasan that he could testify on his own behalf but could not testify during his opening statement Tuesday, if he chooses to make one.

On Thursday, Osborn rejected a request by prosecutors to issue a gag order after Hasan released a past interview with Al Jazeera to Fox News and the Killeen Daily Herald, in which he disavowed his U.S. citizenship and membership in the Army and accused the U.S. of being at war with Islam. The Herald also reported that Hasan provided a sealed document in early July outlining his defense strategy and opening statement.

The day before, Osborn ruled that she would admit as evidence victim autopsy photos, police dashboard camera video and 911 recordings from the shooting.

Prosecutors also sought to admit as evidence emails between Hasan and radical anti-U.S. cleric Anwar Awlaki before the shooting as proof that Hasan is a terrorist and was responsible for the attack. Hasan argued that if the emails were admitted, he should be allowed to use the “defense of others” strategy. Osborn again denied his request, but allowed the government to use the emails.

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