Nidal Hasan Murder Trial To Start This Week

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Hasan allegedly murdered 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009. Intelligence officials say Hassan was inspired by Anwar al Awlaki the leader of Al Qaeda's affiliate network in Yemen. Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Daniel Zwerdling, who covered the story.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. This week, Army Major Nidal Hasan goes on trial. He's the officer who opened fire at a processing center in Fort Hood, Texas in November of 2009. He killed 13 people in that attack and wounded dozens more. U.S. intelligence officials say Hasan was directly inspired by Anwar al Awlaki, the leader of al-Qaida's affiliate network in Yemen. Awlaki was killed in a 2011 U.S. drone strike. Nidal Hasan's court-marshal is scheduled to begin Tuesday. If convicted, he could face the death penalty. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has been following the case and he joins me now. Hi, Danny.


MARTIN: So, remind us briefly how the attack happened, what we know about Nidal Hasan, what we knew of him at the time.

ZWERDLING: It's the morning of November 5, 2009, Fort Hood, Texas, soldiers are getting ready to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. They're at their soldier readiness center, where they get their final medical checks. The Army psychiatrist, one of the psychiatrists who's been appointed to help them when they come back from the world of troubles. Nidal Hasan walks into the center and, according to witnesses, yells Allah u Akbar, and then rips all those people to pieces with a handgun.

And one of the most troubling things about all this is that how could an army psychiatrist have become unhinged this way, if that's, you know, the correct word, without people noticing it? And the troubling aspect of this after the terrible tragedy is that media reports in the weeks after the shooting showed that indeed people in the military, officers in the military who worked with Hasan and people in the FBI all had worries about Hasan in the years leading up to it. And those worries did not go anywhere.

MARTIN: You broke some of the stories that revealed some of those concerns that Hasan's supervisor had about him, specifically at Walter Reed Medical Center here in Washington, D.C. What were they concerned about?

ZWERDLING: You know, Hasan trained and then worked there as a psychiatrist over six years on and off - most of it on. And starting from the time he first started training there, his supervisors gave him repeated bad evaluations. They said he was a bad psychiatrist. They said he was unprofessional. It got so bad that in the year leading up to Fort Hood, his supervisors actually had a series of discussions where they wondered could it be that Hasan is psychotic. And one of his supervisors wondered out loud to colleagues, do you think Nidal Hasan could commit fratricide? Fratricide, of course, is when, you know, a soldier kills a fellow soldier. And one supervisor actively tried to get rid of him, kick him out of the program at Walter Reed. And a committee that had to make the final judgments squashed his efforts.

MARTIN: Did the concerns end there? Were there others?

ZWERDLING: Yes. The FBI, in the year leading up to Fort Hood, Nidal Hasan popped up on their radar, 'cause they were spying on Anwar al Awlaki, who you mentioned in the introduction, the radical cleric. Lo and behold, here is this Army psychiatrist writing emails to this radical cleric. And some of the emails were asking his opinion on killing innocents and his opinions on jihad. And FBI agents actually had an internal debate. Is this guy, Nidal Hasan, dangerous or not? And they finally decided, you know, he's just doing this for his research for a graduate program at the military university. And that's where that ended.

MARTIN: So, it's been more than four years. Nidal Hasan's court-marshal will begin this week on Tuesday. What can we expect?

ZWERDLING: On some level, it might be a kind of bizarre trial. Nidal Hasan got permission from the military judge to represent himself, even though he has no legal training. He's going to be in a wheelchair because, during his shooting rampage, an Army policeman shot him, took him down, and he was paralyzed below the waist. He's going to have, at least unless that changes at the last minute, a big, bushy beard.

That's a story in itself. For six months, there were huge battles in the military court over could he have his beard, could he not have his beard. An appeals court removed a military judge who said he could not have a beard, saying that judge was biased. And so they said for religious reasons, Nidal Hasan can wear a beard.

So, he will be questioning the witnesses, questioning people whose lives he changed by allegedly shooting them. Now, I say allegedly because Nidal Hasan himself has repeatedly taken credit, in effect, for the shootings. But the military judge says in a death penalty case - as he could get the death penalty - he cannot say that he's guilty. So, he is innocent unless the military jury, which is called the military panel, convicts him.

MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Zwerdling. Thanks so much, Danny.

ZWERDLING: Thanks, Rachel.

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