High emotions, little spectacle at Fort Hood trial

9:23 am | August 14, 2013

FORT HOOD, Texas (AP) — Maj. Nidal Hasan hasn’t made disruptive outbursts while on trial for the worst mass shooting ever on a U.S. military base. When soldiers testify how the Army psychiatrist shot and left them for dead in the 2009 rampage at Fort Hood, he doesn’t provoke tensions by asking them questions.

For a long-awaited trial that figured to dramatically unfold over months, a swift finish without spectacle now seems more likely inside the small military courtroom where the proceedings are playing out with military precision.

U.S. courts have seen America-disavowing suspects turn legal proceedings into circuses. Terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, who was charged in the Sept. 11 attacks, was an often volatile figure in court and was removed several times. But at Fort Hood, where the courthouse is fortified with blast-buffering blockades and soldiers standing guard with assault rifles, the atmosphere — and the defendant — are largely muted.

Soldiers stoically relay vivid memories of holding their dying comrades, feeling the sting of a bullet or slipping in blood as a gunman opened fire inside a crowded medical building on the sprawling Texas military base. But aside from some witnesses staring down Hasan, and one muttering an expletive, witnesses have kept their emotions at bay.

Family members in the gallery are handed packets of tissue but stay mostly composed. Only a handful of reporters are allowed in, with nothing but pens and paper.

And the 13 jurors, all high-ranking military officers in decorated dress jackets, scribble notes without flinching during even the most agonizing testimony — including Sgt. 1st Class Maria Guerra relaying how she used a black marker to write ‘D’ on the foreheads of people she believed dead amid screaming and pleas to run.

“I see bodies. I see bodies everywhere. And I see blood. No one is moving. There was no movement. There was no sound. So I yelled out, ‘Is everybody OK?’” she testified, her voice breaking. “I started hearing, ‘Help me. I’m bleeding. I’ve been shot. Help me,’” she said.

Hasan is accused of killing 13 people and wounding more than 30 others on Nov. 5, 2009. He is acting as his own attorney, and speeding up the trial appears to be his passive defense. He has declined to question all but two of the more than 60 witnesses who have testified so far. And Hasan, an American-born Muslim who has previously described his attack as a justified jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, has not disrupted the proceedings or raised many objections.

Soldiers have described a pregnant soldier curled on the floor in the fetal position, shouting “My baby! My baby!” before being silenced by gunfire. Nurses recalled a lieutenant colonel asking them to tell her family she loved them, then using her last breaths to order them to help others who can actually be saved.

None of it provokes visible reaction from Hasan, who is in a wheelchair after being left paralyzed by Fort Hood police who ended the rampage by shooting him. Instead, he watches mostly silently and takes few notes.

The courtroom is unadorned. Its gallery has about 50 chairs, about half of which are reserved for victims’ families and reporters. Soldiers push Hasan in his wheelchair to the defense table, where court-ordered standby attorneys sit without taking notes and rarely lean over to consult with Hasan.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Christopher Royal, who said he charged Hasan to stop the rampage but slipped on a puddle of blood, was among the soldiers shot by Hasan who stared him down from the witness stand. Another soldier, meanwhile, turned her chair away from Hasan and only looked at him through quick, fearful glances from the corner of her eye.

There is, however, always a buffer between Hasan and alleged victims. Col. Michael Mulligan, the government’s lead prosecutor, stands in front of Hasan holding the door as witnesses enter and exit the courtroom.

The judge, Col. Tara Osborn, has begun each day reminding onlookers to control their emotions and control their body language during testimony. She has also been quick to reign in witnesses: When one soldier was asked to identify Hasan and used profanity to describe his appearance, Osborn immediately struck the comment from the record and asked the soldier to refrain from outbursts.

Jeff Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio who has followed the trial, said he is not surprised that someone as intelligent and educated as Hasan would keep his emotions in check. But that could change after the prosecution rests its case, which could happen as early as this week.

“I don’t think it’s over yet,” Addicott said Tuesday. “He might come un-jointed a little bit and allow his emotions to override his mentality.”

Testimony is scheduled to continue Wednesday.

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