FORT HOOD, Texas – A military jury today 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. Because he didn’t dispute the allegations – and put up nearly no defense – the trial has been primarily a pursuit of the death penalty.
The same jurors who convicted Hasan last week needed to agree unanimously on a death sentence. Otherwise, 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.
“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 at the jury forewoman and then at the judge. Some victims’ relatives were in the courtroom but showed no reaction, which the judge had warned against ahead of 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 victims and their families.
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 and made almost no effort to have his life spared during his three-week trial. In fact, he told jurors during a brief opening statement that evidence would show he was the shooter and described himself as a soldier who had “switched sides.”
The judge had barred Hasan from telling the jury that the shooting was necessary to protect Islamic and Taliban leaders from American troops. So he turned to the media, leaking documents to journalists showing that he told military mental health workers that he could “still be a martyr” if executed by the government.
Witnesses built a gory, detailed picture about what happened the afternoon of Nov. 5, 2009. They said a gunman shouted “Allahu akbar!” – Arabic for “God is great!” – before opening fire in a crowded medical building where unarmed soldiers were waiting to receive immunizations and doctors’ clearance. Many were preparing to deploy, while others had recently returned home.
All but one of the dead were soldiers, including a pregnant soldier who witnesses said curled on the floor and cried out, “My baby!”
The attack ended when Hasan was shot in the back by a police officer responding to the shooting. Hasan is now paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair.
The military called nearly 90 witnesses, yet Hasan questioned just three of them. He rested his case without witnesses or testifying, and he made no closing argument. Even with his life at stake during the tiral’s sentencing phase, he made no attempt to question any of the additional witnesses called by prosecutors and gave no final statement to jurors.
Hasan’s civil attorney, John Galligan, said today that he believes Hasan received an unfair trial. Galligan said he was disappointed in the sentence but was confident it would be reversed on appeal.
Death sentences are rare in the military, which has just five other prisoners on death row. The cases trigger a long appeals process, and 11 of the 16 death sentences handed down by military juries in the last 30 years have been overturned, according to an academic study and court records. No American soldier has been executed since 1961.
Eduardo Caraveo, whose father was killed in the rampage, said he cared more about Hasan being found guilty than he did about the sentencing. But he would have preferred that Hasan receive a life sentence.
“I didn’t want him getting any satisfaction, so him getting killed by the government just gives him what he wanted to me. He wanted to be a martyr,” said Caraveo, who lives in Tucson, Ariz. “My main thing is him being held accountable for his action. That’s really all I ever wanted.”
Authorities said Hasan spent weeks planning the attack, including buying a handgun and videotaping a sales clerk showing him how to change the magazine.
He practiced at a gun range near Austin, about 70 miles south of Fort Hood, and asked 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.
The day of the attack, Hasan stuffed paper towels in the pockets of his cargo pants to muffle the rattling of extra ammunition. Soldiers testified that Hasan’s rapid reloading made it all but impossible to stop him.
Investigators later 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.