AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A military court on Wednesday temporarily delayed the start of court-martial proceedings against Major Nidal Hasan, accused of killing 13 people in a shooting rampage at the Fort Hood Army base, while it decides whether the Muslim Hasan’s beard should be forcibly shaved.
Hasan, who faces 45 counts of murder and attempted murder for the November 2009 slayings, was expected to enter a plea of not guilty to the charges and begin his court-martial on Monday at the sprawling Central Texas military complex.
But the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces halted the hearing on Wednesday and said the case could not move forward until it determined whether Col. Gregory Gross, the presiding judge, could order soldiers to forcibly shave Hasan’s beard.
Composed of five civilian judges, the panel is the highest level appellate court in the military.
The surprise delay jeopardizes plans for a pre-trial hearing on Friday and jury selection on Monday.
Hasan has been found in contempt of court five times for refusing to shave and fined $5,000. The beard is a violation of military regulations, but Hasan’s attorneys have said in court that it is an expression of his Muslim beliefs.
Gross had threatened to have it forcibly shaved to make sure he is in the courtroom during the court-martial proceedings.
The appeals court stopped the hearing about an hour after it began. Hasan’s attorneys had asked the appeals court for a ruling on whether shaving him violated his rights.
Hasan faces 13 charges of premeditated murder and 32 charges of attempted premeditated murder in connection with the attack on the post. Attorneys for Hasan had argued Wednesday that they should be allowed to enter guilty pleas for the murder charges, saying Hasan wanted to take responsibility for his actions.
But Gross said court-martial rules prevent him from allowing Hasan to plead guilty to capital charges. Military rules say he must have a court-martial and be judged by a jury of his peers because he could be executed if convicted.
As a result, a not guilty plea was expected to be entered on Hasan’s behalf when the hearing resumes.
Hasan, whose parents were Palestinian and who had recently completed his medical residency, was preparing for military deployment to Afghanistan before opening fire at a Fort Hood deployment center on November 5, 2009.
During the shooting, he was paralyzed from the chest down by bullet wounds inflicted by civilian police officers. He is being held in a special hospital cell in the Bell County Jail, about 15 miles from the post.
Editing by Greg McCune and Stacey Joyce