Fort Hood, Texas • On the first day Maj. Nidal Hasan went on trial in a fight 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'd had enough they couldn't watch him fulfill a death wish.
"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, Lt. Col. 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 couldn't ask them for help with a strategy they oppose.
Hasan repeatedly objected, telling the judge: "That's a twist of the facts."
The exchange prompted the judge, Col. Tara Osborn, to halt the long-delayed 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 murder for the attack on the Texas military post.
"I don't envy [Osborn]. 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.
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.
The trial is scheduled to resume Thursday morning. Osborn did not say when she would decide on the motion.