December 5, 2013 Sections
The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
FORT HOOD, Texas - The Army psychiatrist who fatally shot 13 people at Fort Hood decided not to present any evidence during his trial's penalty phase on Tuesday even though jurors are deciding whether to sentence him to death.
Maj. Nidal Hasan rested his case without calling witnesses or testifying to counter the emotional testimony from victims' relatives, who talked of eerily quiet homes, lost futures, alcoholism and the unmatched fear of hearing a knock on their front door.
That prompted his standby attorneys to ask to take over. They say he isn't presenting evidence that could convince jurors to sentence him to life in prison, such as good behaviour in jail and his offer to plead guilty before trial.
But the judge, Col. Tara Osborn, denied their request. She says that while ill-advised, Hasan has the constitutional right to represent himself.
Prosecutors hope the testimony helps convince jurors to hand down a rare military death sentence against Hasan, who was convicted last week for the 2009 attack that also wounded more than 30 people at the Texas military base.
The judge dismissed jurors after Hasan declined to put up a defence. But she then asked Hasan more than two dozen questions in rapid fire, affirming that he knew what he was doing. His answers were succinct and just as rapid.
"It is my personal decision," he said. "It is free and voluntary."
Closing arguments are scheduled for Wednesday, but whether jurors will hear from Hasan remains unclear. He has been acting as his own attorney but has put up nearly no defence since his trial began three weeks ago.
The trial's penalty phase, however, is Hasan's last chance to tell jurors what he's spent the last four years telling the military, judges and journalists: that he believes the killing of unarmed American soldiers preparing to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan was necessary to protect Muslim insurgents. He was barred ahead of trial of making such a defence.
Hasan rested his case shortly after more than a dozen widows, mothers, fathers, children and other relatives of those killed, along with soldiers wounded during the shooting rampage, testified about their lives since Nov. 5, 2009.
Sheryll Pearson sobbed when shown a photo of her son, Pfc. Michael Pearson, hugging her during his graduation.
"We always wanted to see who he was going to become. Now that was taken away from us," she said.
Joleen Cahill told jurors that she misses hearing her husband's footsteps in their Texas home, which she said now feels empty. Witnesses have said her husband, Michael Cahill, was armed only with a chair when he tried to charge Hasan as Hasan opened fire on unarmed soldiers inside a crowded medical building at Fort Hood.
The 62-year-old physician's assistant was the only civilian killed in the attack.
"One of the hardest things was being alone for first time in 60 years of my life. No one to come home to at night. No conversation. We loved to talk politics," she said.
Prosecutors want Hasan to join just five other U.S. service members currently on military death row. That would require a unanimous decision by the jury of 13 military officers, and prosecutors must prove an aggravating factor and present evidence to show the severity of Hasan's crimes.
Hasan has done little to counter prosecutors' case. He questioned only three of prosecutors' nearly 90 witnesses, and although he gave a brief opening statement — during which he acknowledged that the evidence would show he was the shooter — he gave no closing argument before he was convicted.
The military attorneys ordered to advise him during the trial have repeatedly asked to take over his case. They did so again on Tuesday, saying Hasan hadn't presented evidence that could persuade jurors to sentence him to life in prison.
But the judge denied their request, saying Hasan's choice to represent himself — while ill-advised — was a right guaranteed by the Constitution.
No American soldier has been executed since 1961. Many military death row inmates have had their sentences overturned on appeal, which are automatic when jurors vote for the death penalty. The president also must eventually approve a military death sentence.