KILLEEN, Texas — The judge overseeing the military trial of the Army psychiatrist charged in a deadly shooting rampage at the Fort Hood base denied his former lawyers’ request to limit their role in the case on Thursday. The ruling came a day after the lawyers said they could no longer assist him because he was seeking the same goal as prosecutors — to be sentenced to death.
The psychiatrist, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, released his court-appointed Army defense lawyers so he could represent himself, a rare if not unprecedented move in a military capital-punishment case. His three former lawyers remain with in the courtroom as standby counsel.
After Hasan gave an opening statement Tuesday and admitted that he was the gunman, his former lead Army lawyer asked the judge to cut back the lawyers’ involvement, saying that helping him achieve his death-sentence goal violated their ethics as defense lawyers.
On Thursday, the judge said the dispute amounted to a disagreement over strategy between Hasan and his standby counsel. She said that he was competent to represent himself and that the Constitution gave him the right to do so. The judge, Colonel Tara A. Osborn, ordered the lawyers to continue to assist him.
Hasan’s former lead lawyer with the Army Trial Defense Service, Lieutenant Colonel Kris R. Poppe, said he intended to appeal her ruling to a military appellate court.
He made an impassioned, at times heated, argument, telling the judge that her order forced them to violate their moral and professional responsibilities and disputing with her the notion that the dilemma could be resolved by a decision from the lawyers’ state bar associations.
“This is not about saving my license,” Poppe said. “This is about what you’re requiring me to do today.”
Osborn said that, until there was a ruling by an appellate court, the trial would go on.
Military law experts said that Poppe’s appeal would not have a major effect on the trial. But the colonel has filed previous appeals in the case that have been upheld by military appellate courts, altering the trial’s course.
Hasan said he had grown a beard out of devotion to his Muslim faith, in violation of Army grooming rules. The case’s previous judge, Colonel Gregory Gross, called Hasan’s beard a disruption and ordered him to be forcibly shaved.
Based on an appeal by his Army defense team, however, a military appeals court vacated Gross’s order and removed him from the case, citing an appearance of bias.
Hasan is accused of killing 13 people and wounding 32 others at the Army base on Nov. 5, 2009. If convicted, he faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
The extent to which Hasan wants to die — and whether he believes being put to death would make him a martyr in the eyes of those who share his radical Islamic beliefs — has been unclear. By releasing his Army defense team and by choosing to represent himself, Hasan, who has no formal legal training, has increased his chances of the jury approving a death sentence.
In a July 2011 jailhouse statement to Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite broadcasting network — recorded by the FBI — Hasan began by quoting verses from Chapter 18 of the Koran, in which Allah, he said, will give “glad tidings to the believers who do righteous deeds, that they shall have a fair reward. They shall abide therein forever.”
In court, Hasan has told the judge that he disagreed with Poppe’s assertion that he is seeking the death penalty, calling it inaccurate. He has not elaborated in open court.
On Thursday, for the first time, Army prosecutors weighed in on the matter, and suggested that they, too, disagreed that Hasan had a death wish.
The lead prosecutor, Colonel Michael Mulligan, told the judge that Hasan had only two strategies — he did not do it or he did it with an excuse. He had chosen the latter, a tried-and-true defense strategy in a capital punishment case, Mulligan said.
“I’m really perplexed as to why it’s caused a moral dilemma,” he told the judge.
John P. Galligan, a civilian defense lawyer released by Hasan in 2011, disagreed with Poppe that Hasan’s goal was to be put to death.
Galligan said Hasan had done a good job representing himself. “They want to kill him,” Galligan said. “He knows that. That’s not a death wish as much as it is being a realist.”