In Fort Hood killings, he's suspect and lawyer

Published: Monday, Aug. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6A

KILLEEN, Texas – Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford Jr. usually worked in the back of the Soldier Readiness Processing Center, giving smallpox shots to deploying and returning troops at the Fort Hood Army base. But on Nov. 5, 2009, he was standing at the counter at the building's entrance after 1 p.m., so that his colleagues could take a lunch break.

A soldier whom Lunsford recognized, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, walked in front of him. Moments later, Lunsford said, Hasan shouted "God is great" in Arabic and opened fire. In a matter of minutes, 100 rounds were fired, 13 people were fatally wounded and more than 30 others were injured.

Lunsford, who was unarmed, was shot once in the head and six times in the body. He had played dead, and then tried to exit the building, but Hasan followed him outside and shot him in the back, he said.

It is not unusual for victims to face their assailants in court, as Lunsford will do Tuesday, when he testifies on the first day of Hasan's military trial. What is extraordinary is that Hasan, seated behind the defense table in a Fort Hood courtroom, may be the one asking Lunsford the questions during cross-examination.

Hasan is representing himself, one of many elements of his long-delayed court-martial that legal experts say will make it one of the most unpredictable and significant military trials in recent history.

"I will be cross-examined by the man who shot me," said Lunsford, 46, who retired from the Army and remains blind in his left eye. "You can imagine all the emotions that are going to be coming up."

Nearly four years after the attack, Hasan – bearded, paralyzed after he was shot by the police and thinner than he was in 2009 – will be wheeled into a courthouse to face 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder. He claimed to have been trying to protect Taliban leaders from soldiers deploying to Afghanistan, and in his statements both in and out of the courtroom, he has acknowledged being the gunman.

Because of the magnitude of the crime, experts in military law said the only case they could compare it to was the 1971 court-martial of 1st Lt. William Calley, the only soldier convicted in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, in which hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were killed by U.S. troops.

"I can't think of a single act of military criminal misconduct since My Lai that was so grave," said Geoffrey Corn, a former Army prosecutor who is a professor in Houston at the South Texas College of Law.

The Army has spent more than $5 million on the case, fortifying the courthouse against explosions and transporting Hasan for hearings by helicopter from the nearby Bell County jail, where he is being held at Army expense.

The Army has also paid for his military defense lawyers, paralegals and experts as well as the monthly rental costs for a trailer next to the courthouse where he works on his case under tight security.

The Army hopes to persuade a jury of 13 Army officers that Hasan is guilty and deserves to die, while minimizing any issues that could overturn a death sentence on appeal. Hasan had offered to plead guilty, but Army prosecutors refused him, citing military law that prohibits defendants in capital punishment cases from pleading guilty.

If the jury sentences Hasan to death, the verdict will present a crucial test of the military's death penalty system, which has been criticized as ineffectual and faulty, with appellate courts overturning or commuting several death sentences over procedural errors. No U.S. soldier has been executed since 1961, when John A. Bennett, an Army private convicted of the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old Austrian girl, was hanged at Fort Leavenworth.

Hasan is the only defendant in modern times to represent himself in a military capital-punishment case.

The judge has forbidden him to present evidence of his claim that he was protecting the Taliban because she ruled it had no legal merit, although he can testify to his own motivations should he take the stand. She also said that when Army prosecutors give their opening statements, they cannot use emails exchanged before the attack between Hasan and Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric who was killed in 2011 in a CIA drone strike in Yemen.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Manny Fernandez



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