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Fort Hood shooter wants death penalty

FORT HOOD, Texas — On the first day Major Nidal Hasan went on trial for his life, he claimed responsibility for the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood. He posed no questions to most witnesses. He said the alleged murder weapon was his, even though no one asked.

The Army psychiatrist sometimes took notes while acting as his own attorney, but he mostly looked forward impassively and rarely asked for help as witness after witness said he was the shooter.

By Wednesday, the lawyers ordered to help him said they had had enough — they could not watch him fulfill a death wish.

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‘‘It becomes clear his goal is to remove impediments or obstacles to the death penalty and is working toward a death penalty,’’ his lead standby attorney, Lieutenant Colonel Kris Poppe, told the judge. That strategy, he argued, ‘‘is repugnant to defense counsel and contrary to our professional obligations.’’

Poppe said he and the other standby lawyers want to take over the case, or if Hasan is allowed to continue on his own, they want their roles minimized so that Hasan could not ask them for help with a strategy they oppose.

Hasan objected, saying: ‘‘That’s a twist of the facts.’’

The exchange prompted the judge, Colonel Tara Osborn, to halt the trial on only its second day. She must now decide what to do next, knowing that all moves she makes will be scrutinized by a military justice system that has overturned most soldiers’ death sentences in the last three decades.

Hasan faces a possible death sentence if convicted of the 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated for the attack on the Texas military post.

‘‘I don’t envy her. She’s on the horns of a dilemma here,’’ said Richard Rosen, a law professor at Texas Tech University and former military prosecutor who attended the first two days of trial. ‘‘I think whatever she does is potentially dangerous, at least from the view of an appellate court.’’

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Rosen and other experts said that if Osborn allows Poppe and Hasan’s other standby defense attorneys to take over, the judge could be seen as having unfairly denied Hasan’s right to defend himself, a right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. But if she lets Hasan continue defending himself, she could be depriving him of adequate help from experienced attorneys.

He also noted that it is extremely rare for defendants to represent themselves in military court. ‘‘They don’t want this case to be reversed on appeal,’’ Rosen said. ‘‘The worst thing that can happen would be to retry the case all over again.’’

Giving Poppe a more active role in the case or having him take over the defense could enable Hasan to argue he was denied his right to defend himself, added Victor Hansen, another former military prosecutor who teaches at the New England School of Law.

‘‘At the end of the day, the defendant has the absolute right who’s going to represent him, including deciding to represent himself,’’ Hansen said Wednesday.

Hasan asked questions of just two witnesses during the first day of trial Tuesday, and he delivered an opening statement that lasted barely a minute. Hasan rarely looked at Poppe or another standby attorney, Major Joseph Marcee, though the two lawyers occasionally whispered among themselves.

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An expected confrontation between Hasan and a key witness, retired Staff Sergeant Alonzo Lunsford — whom Hasan shot seven times — never materialized. Hasan declined to cross-examine him.