FORT HOOD, Texas (Reuters) - A military jury on Wednesday sentenced a U.S. Army psychiatrist to death for murdering 13 people in 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas, where he gunned down unarmed soldiers in what he later called retaliation for U.S. wars in the Muslim world.
Major Nidal Hasan shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is greatest” in Arabic) during the attack and later said he wanted to be a martyr. Now he faces death by lethal injection, pending an automatic appeal, for the rampage that also wounded 31 people.
The jury deliberated just over two hours before deciding on the death penalty for Hasan, who opened fire with a laser-sighted handgun in a medical facility at the sprawling central Texas military base just weeks before he was to be deployed to Afghanistan.
Bald with a thick beard, wearing Army fatigues and seated in a wheelchair, Hasan showed no expression as the president of the jury read aloud the sentence that he “be put to death.” He is paralyzed from being shot by police upon his arrest on November 5, 2009.
Death sentences are rare in the military, which last executed a member of the service 52 years ago. Hasan, 42, will become the sixth man on death row at the U.S. military’s prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The same jury convicted him on Friday of 45 counts of premeditated murder and attempted premeditated murder.
“A weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” said widow Joleen Cahill, who said she agreed with the sentence. Her husband, retired Chief Warrant Officer Michael Cahill, was among those killed. The other 12 were active duty soldiers.
Cahill’s daughter Keely Vanacker added: “We are tired. We are hurt. We are resolved that justice has been served.”
Gale Hunt, the mother of Specialist Jason Hunt, 22, also killed by Hasan, said she too was satisfied, although she added: “As a Christian, I can’t say I wish death upon anyone.”
An American-born Muslim, Hasan, who acted as his own attorney, said in his opening statement on August 6 that he was the gunman and had switched sides in what he considered to be a U.S. war on Islam.
He told mental health evaluators he wanted to become a martyr. Lawyers assisting him have said he was actively seeking the death penalty, although Hasan disputed that claim.
In asking the jury to return a sentence of death prior to deliberations, prosecutor Colonel Michael Mulligan told the jurors: “Don’t be fooled.”
“He is not now and never will be a martyr. He is a criminal. He is a cold-blooded murderer,” Mulligan said. “He is not giving his life. We are taking his life.”
After Hasan learned he would be deployed to Afghanistan for six months, prosecutors said, he gave away his possessions and trained at a local shooting range.
Witnesses to the shooting said Hasan first sat among the soldiers who were waiting for immunizations and clearance at Fort Hood’s medical processing center before deploying overseas.
He asked a civilian woman to leave and then opened fire, they said. Investigators recovered 146 shell casings.
Witnesses described a chaotic scene of people diving for cover, bloodied bodies and cries for help. Private Francheska Velez, 21, was heard screaming “my baby, my baby” in a futile plea to save her unborn child.
The pregnant private was one of three women killed in the shooting. The 13 killed ranged in age from 19 to 62.
Beyond his stunning admission in opening arguments, Hasan spoke little during his trial, turning down repeated opportunities to make a statement or present evidence.
Standby defense attorneys for Hasan attempted unsuccessfully to present so-called mitigating evidence to argue for a life sentence. Hasan objected, complaining he had “overzealous defense counsel.”
Twenty family members and victims gave evidence during the sentencing phase, recounting heart wrenching stories about their loss, grief and struggles to rebuild their lives.
A young widow talked about her two suicide attempts, and a staff sergeant described his partial paralysis, brain damage and his debilitating anger and depression since he was shot.
The jury also sentenced Hasan to be dismissed from the military and to be stripped of all pay.
The death sentence means the start of an automatic and lengthy appeals process, typically a minimum of four years, according to military officials. A military execution requires the approval of the Fort Hood commanding general and the U.S. president in order to take place.
In addition, at least two military appellate courts will automatically review the case to determine whether the sentence was appropriate. Eugene Fidell, an expert in military justice at Yale University, said he expects Hasan will be assigned lawyers to argue his appeal regardless of whether he wishes to challenge the sentence.
The last person to be executed by the U.S. military was Army Private John Bennett, who was hung in 1961 for rape and attempted murder.
Additional reporting by Joseph Ax.; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Bob Burgdorfer