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August 28, 2013

Soldier sentenced to death for Fort Hood shooting

FORT HOOD — A military jury on Wednesday sentenced Maj. Nidal Hasan to death for the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, delivering the only punishment the Army believed fit for an attack on fellow unarmed soldiers. The sentence also was one that Hasan appeared to seek in a self-proclaimed effort to become a martyr.

The American-born Muslim, who has said he acted to protect Islamic insurgents abroad from American aggression, never denied killing 13 people and wounding more than 30 others at the Texas military base. In opening statements, he told jurors that evidence would show he was the shooter and described himself as a soldier who had “switched sides.”

The same jurors who convicted Hasan last week needed to agree unanimously on a death sentence on Wednesday, though the 42-year-old faced a minimum sentence of life in prison.

Kathy Platoni, an Army reservist who still struggles with images of Capt. John Gaffaney bleeding to death at her feet, said she was surprised by the verdict but not opposed to the punishment.

“What Nidal Hasan wanted was to be a martyr and so many of the (victims') families had spoken to the issue of not giving him what he wants because this is his own personal holy war,” said Platoni, who watched most of the trial from inside the courtroom.

“But on the other hand, this is from the bottom of my heart, he doesn't deserve to live,” she said. “I don't know how long it takes for a death sentence to be carried out, but the world will be a better place without him.”

Hasan had no visible reaction when the verdict was read, staring first at the jury forewoman and then at the judge. Some victims' relatives were in the courtroom but also showed no reaction, which the judge had warned against before the verdict.

Officials said Hasan will be taken back to a county jail and then transported on the first available military flight to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. The timing on the flight wasn't immediately clear.

Hasan could become the first American soldier executed in more than half a century. But because the military justice system requires a lengthy appeals process, years or even decades could pass before he is put to death.

In his final plea for a rare military death sentence, the lead prosecutor assured jurors earlier Wednesday that Hasan would “never be a martyr” despite his attempt to tie the attack to religion.

“He is a criminal. He is a cold-blooded murderer,” Col. Mike Mulligan said. “This is not his gift to God. This is his debt to society. This is the cost of his murderous rampage.”

For nearly four years, the federal government has sought to execute Hasan, believing that any sentence short of a lethal injection would deny justice to the families of the dead and the survivors who had believed they were safe behind the gates of Fort Hood, a sprawling Army post about 70 miles north of Austin.

And for just as long, Hasan seemed content to go to the death chamber for his beliefs. He fired his own attorneys to represent himself, barely put up a defense during a three-week trial and made almost no effort to have his life spared.

Mulligan reminded the jury that Hasan was a trained doctor yet opened fire on defenseless comrades. Hasan “only dealt death,” the prosecutor said, so the only appropriate sentence was death.

He was never allowed to argue in front of the jury that the shooting was necessary to protect Islamic and Taliban leaders from American troops. But during the trial, Hasan leaked documents to journalists that revealed he told military mental health workers in 2010 that he could “still be a martyr” if executed by the government.

When Hasan began shooting, soldiers were standing in long lines inside a medical building to receive immunizations and doctors' clearance. Many of the soldiers were preparing to deploy, while others had recently returned home.

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

The attack ended when Hasan was shot in the back by an officer responding to the shooting. Hasan is now paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair.

The military called nearly 90 witnesses at the trial and more during the sentencing phase. But Hasan rested his case without calling a single person to testify and made no closing argument. Even with his life at stake during the sentencing hearing, he made no attempt to question witnesses and gave no final statement to jurors.

Death sentences are rare in the military, which has just five other prisoners on death row. The cases trigger a long appeals process, and the president must give final authorization before any service member is executed. No American soldier has been executed since 1961.

Authorities said Hasan spent weeks planning the Nov. 5, 2009, attack, including buying a 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 television 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 ammunition and avoid arousing suspicion. Soldiers testified that Hasan's rapid reloading made it all but impossible to stop him. Investigators recovered 146 shell casings in 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 the judge 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.

___

Associated Press writer Will Weissert contributed to this report from Fort Hood.

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