FORT HOOD, TX — Retired Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford says he will never forget locking eyes with the gunman who entered a Fort Hood building Nov. 5, 2009, and then unleashed a burst of gunfire into a crowd of soldiers preparing for deployment.
Retired Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning said he saw the gunman too, before he was shot six times as he sat in the front row of chairs waiting for routine medical tests.
Now the nearly three dozen soldiers wounded in the deadly attack on the Texas Army post are facing the prospect of being approached and questioned in court by the man many witnesses have identified as the gunman: Maj. Nidal Hasan.
A military judge Monday granted Hasan’s request to represent himself at his upcoming murder trial, and Hasan later hinted that he would try to justify the attack, revealing for the first time his defense strategy.
Hasan, an American-born Muslim, said he would use a “defense of others” strategy, which experts say requires defendants to prove they were protecting other people from imminent danger.
“It’s definitely going to make (testifying) a lot more difficult,” Manning said. “And it makes me sick to my stomach that he’d even (use that defense).”
Military experts speculated that Hasan might argue he was protecting fellow Muslims in Afghanistan because soldiers were preparing to deploy from the Texas Army post.
The judge was to decide Tuesday on Hasan’s request for a three-month delay to prepare his defense. But Col. Tara Osborn, the judge, scolded him Monday, saying she granted his request to represent himself in part because he previously said he wouldn’t need extra time. Jury selection is set for Wednesday.
Government documents show that Hasan, in speaking with some colleagues, expressed support for Osama bin Laden and said the U.S. was at war with Islam. In some emails to a radical Muslim cleric, Hasan indicated that he supported terrorists and was intrigued with the idea of U.S. soldiers killing comrades in the name of Islam.
Manning said five of the 13 killed at Fort Hood were in two units that had been training to help soldiers deal with stress. Deployed soldiers in those units are allowed to fire their weapons only in self-defense, Manning said. Hasan was to deploy to Afghanistan with one of those units.
“Even if he feels the U.S. is in an unjustified war, this defendant is not going to be able to show a threat was immediate because these soldiers were on U.S. soil and unarmed,” said Jeff Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.
Reed Rubinstein, who is representing about 150 Fort Hood victims and their families in a lawsuit alleging negligence by the government, said the wounded soldiers “never had any doubt about why he shot them.” But if Hasan tries to use the trial as a platform for his beliefs, “he’s making a mockery of the judicial system,” Rubinstein said.
Lunsford said he was upset and angry that the judge is allowing Hasan to question the wounded soldiers. Lunsford said he expects Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, to try to intimidate them through mind games.
“It’s a battle of wits, and he’s going to lose,” said Lunsford, who was shot seven times and lost most of the sight in his left eye. “I was there. I saw what this man did. I’m living proof of what he did, but I survived. … I’m not going to show any fear.”
Hasan faces the death penalty or life without parole if convicted of 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder.
After questioning Hasan for about an hour Monday, the judge ruled that he was mentally competent to represent himself and understood “the disadvantage of self-representation.” Hasan’s attorneys will remain on the case but only if he asks for their help, Osborn said.
She repeatedly urged Hasan to reconsider, noting that he would be held to the same standards as all attorneys regarding courtroom rules and military law and be going up against a prosecutor with more than 20 years of experience. Osborn also said he must be courteous to witnesses and not get personal with them.
After the judge asked once again if he understood that representing himself was not “a good idea,” Hasan replied: “You’ve made that quite clear.”
Hasan in 2011 cut ties with his previous lead attorney, John Galligan, a civilian who is a former military judge. Galligan said recently that he didn’t know why his former client wanted to represent himself.
Witnesses have said that after lunch on Nov. 5, 2009, a gunman wearing an Army combat uniform shouted “Allahu Akbar!” — “God is great!” in Arabic — and opened fire in a crowded medical building where deploying soldiers get vaccines and tests. Witnesses said the gunman fired rapidly, pausing only to reload, even shooting at some soldiers as they hid under desks and fled the building.