KILLEEN, Texas — Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people, told a judge Tuesday that he believed he was defending the lives of the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan from US military personnel when he went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood in November 2009.
Hasan’s remarks were the first public explanation about the motive for one of the deadliest mass shootings at a US military base. His comments came a day after the judge granted his request to release his court-appointed military lawyers so that he could represent himself.
On Monday, one of Hasan’s first legal maneuvers had been to ask the judge, Colonel Tara A. Osborn, for a three-month delay for the start of his trial, scheduled to begin July 1. His primary reason in asking for the delay was to change his defense to “a defense of others,” but he had not elaborated on the identity of the “others.” At a new hearing Tuesday, Osborn asked him pointedly whom he was defending.
“The leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban,” he said, specifically naming Mullah Omar, the founder of the Islamic insurgent group.
His comments, delivered in a soft, matter-of-fact tone, stunned many in the courtroom. Seated in the gallery behind him were Army soldiers, military police officers, and relatives of some of his victims. Osborn then asked him to explain his defense, and Hasan asked for a recess to gather his thoughts.
When the hearing resumed a few minutes later, the judge again asked him to explain the facts supporting his defense, and he said he preferred to submit his thoughts in written form. “I don’t want to brainstorm in front of the court,” he told her.
But the judge pressed him further. When she asked if he was defending one person or a group of people, he said it was the group of Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, including Omar. The judge asked him to explain the connection between the Taliban leaders and the people he is accused of murdering and attempting to murder.
“They’re part of the United States military,” he said.
The judge delayed the start of jury selection, which had been set to begin Wednesday, to give Hasan one day to find the legal authority to apply such a defense to his case. He was ordered to submit a brief to the judge by Wednesday morning, and Army prosecutors were asked to submit their own brief in response. She did not rule on whether to grant Hasan’s request for a delay, but instead set another hearing for Wednesday afternoon to further discuss the “defense of others” issue.
The “defense of others” strategy requires a criminal defendant to prove the defendant was compelled to use force against an aggressor to protect a person or a group from being harmed or killed by that aggressor. In this case, Hasan asserts that he was protecting Taliban leaders from death by using deadly force against Fort Hood military personnel deploying to Afghanistan.
The defense is not typically used in military trials, and Osborn seemed to question whether Hasan had any facts or evidence.
Military legal experts called his theory ludicrous and said it fell outside the legal parameters of “defense of others” cases. They said that those with a legitimate “defense of others” case must prove that the people being protected were victims of unlawful force and were facing an immediate threat or danger. Those two elements do not apply to the Fort Hood shooting, they said, because Taliban leaders were lawful objects of attack and faced no immediate threat from anyone at Fort Hood that day.
“I think the defense in this context makes no sense at all,” said Richard Rosen, director of the Center for Military Law and Policy at the Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock.
On Tuesday, two of Hasan’s former lawyers sat at the defense table with him, and a third sat behind him. The judge had ordered them to remain as standby counsel, and Hasan frequently asked questions of his former lead lawyer throughout the hearing.
Hasan is accused of killing 13 people and wounding more than 30 others at the Fort Hood base on Nov. 5, 2009. He could face the death penalty if convicted.