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updated: 8/7/2013 8:13 PM

Attorney: Fort Hood suspect wants to die

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  • Video: Day 1 in Fort Hood trial

  • In this courtroom sketch, Maj. Nidal Hasan sits in court for his court-martial Tuesday in Fort Hood, Texas.

      In this courtroom sketch, Maj. Nidal Hasan sits in court for his court-martial Tuesday in Fort Hood, Texas.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

FORT HOOD, Texas -- On the first day Maj. Nidal Hasan went on trial in a fight for his life, he claimed responsibility for the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood. He posed no questions to most witnesses and rarely spoke. On one of the few times he did talk, it was to get on the record that the alleged murder weapon was his, even though no one had asked.

The Army psychiatrist sometimes took notes while acting as his own attorney, but he mostly looked forward impassively and rarely asked for help.

By Wednesday, the lawyers ordered to help him said they'd had enough they couldn't watch him fulfill a death wish.

"It becomes clear his goal is to remove impediments or obstacles to the death penalty and is working toward a death penalty," his lead standby attorney, Lt. Col. Kris Poppe, told the judge. That strategy, he argued, "is repugnant to defense counsel and contrary to our professional obligations."

Poppe said he and the other standby lawyers want to take over the case, or if the defendant is allowed to continue on his own, they want their roles minimized so that he couldn't ask them for help with a strategy they oppose.

The defendant repeatedly objected, telling the judge: "That's a twist of the facts."

The exchange prompted the judge, Col. Tara Osborn, to halt the long-delayed trial on only its second day. She must now decide what to do next, knowing that all moves she makes will be scrutinized by a military justice system that has overturned most soldiers' death sentences in the last three decades.

The defendant faces a possible death sentence if convicted of the 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated for the attack on the Texas military post.

"I don't envy her. She's on the horns of a dilemma here," said Richard Rosen, a law professor at Texas Tech University and former military prosecutor who attended the first two days of trial. "I think whatever she does is potentially dangerous, at least from the view of an appellate court."

Rosen and other experts said that if Osborn allows Poppe and the defendant's other standby defense attorneys to take over, the judge could be seen as having unfairly denied the defendant's right to defend himself, a right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. But if she lets Hasan continue defending himself, she could be depriving him of adequate help from experienced attorneys.

He also noted that it's extremely rare for defendants to represent themselves in military court.

"They don't want this case to be reversed on appeal," Rosen said. "The worst thing that can happen would be to retry the case all over again."

Giving Poppe a more active role in the case or having him take over the defense could enable Hasan to argue he was denied his right to defend himself, added Victor Hansen, another former military prosecutor who teaches at the New England School of Law.

"At the end of the day, the defendant has the absolute right who's going to represent him, including deciding to represent himself," Hansen said Wednesday.

The defendant asked questions of just two witnesses during the first day of trial on Tuesday, and he delivered an opening statement that lasted barely a minute. He rarely looked at Poppe or another standby attorney, Maj. Joseph Marcee, though the two lawyers occasionally whispered among themselves

An expected confrontation between the defendant and a key witness, retired Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford -- whom the defendant allegedly shot seven times -- never materialized. He declined to cross-examine Lunsford. He even offered to stipulate that a handgun passed around the courtroom was his, only to be told by Osborn that prosecutors must agree beforehand.

The trial is scheduled to resume Thursday morning. Osborn did not say when she would decide on the motion.

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