Fort Hood Shooter A 'Shrunken' Presence In Court Martial

The court martial of Army Maj. Nidal Hasan began Tuesday at Fort Hood in Texas. Hasan is defending himself and told jurors that the evidence will show he was the man who killed 13 soldiers in 2009. But he said that the trial will not tell the whole story.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We begin this hour at Fort Hood in Texas, where the court-martial of Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan began today. Hasan is defending himself, and in his opening statement, he said the evidence will show that he was the shooter who attacked fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in 2009. That attack left 13 dead and more than 30 wounded. Hasan also said the trial would not tell the whole story.

NPR's Martin Kaste was in the courtroom to hear all of this, and he joins me now. And, Martin, why don't you describe the scene in the courtroom today?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, it's very subdued, very decorous. The judge made a point, right as we started, of warning everyone that there might be some emotions provoked by some of the things that were about to be said, especially since there were family members in the courtroom, warned everyone to keep it very formal and very contained, and that's exactly what she got. Even Major Hasan was very quiet, soft-spoken, very polite.

It was a strange scene, though. He's sort of a shrunken presence. He sits in a wheelchair. He was shot and paralyzed on that day. And he's the only one in fatigues. The jury, the lawyers are all in their dress blues. And he wears sort of a stocking cap on his head when the court is not in session because I think he has sort of temperature regulation issues being paralyzed. So he's sort of this shrunken presence. He stares at the table. He doesn't make eye contact. It's very solemn, very quiet.

BLOCK: And we mentioned that he has said outright in his opening statement: The evidence will clearly show that I am the shooter. What else did he tell the jurors?

KASTE: Yeah, it was a short statement, but it made it pretty clear he doesn't seem to want to fight the facts being laid out here. He made sort of a cryptic apology. He said: I apologize for any mistakes I made in this endeavor. The endeavor he was referring to was his claim that he is a Muslim trying to establish the perfect religion.

He also talked briefly about how, you know, even though this evidence from the trial would show that he was the shooter, it would not show that he was, in his words, on the wrong side in what he believes to be the U.S.'s war against Islam and that he, in effect, switched sides. But besides that, he's raised very few objections. He's asked a few questions, but it's been pretty quiet.

BLOCK: And what about from the prosecution side, Martin? Since Hasan is not contesting the facts of the case, what is their job? What did they say today?

KASTE: They're being very deliberate here. They are setting things out almost in chronological order. Today, they had a - an opening statement describing the horrors of that day, describing where people were standing in the Readiness Center, where the soldiers were standing when the attack began. They described actually very - in detail the fact that he made a point of avoiding shooting civilians. He only shot people in uniform. In fact, one soldier escaped after confronting him or talking to him because he was dressed in civilian clothes.

And they also spent some time talking to the staff of a local gun store called Guns Galore, where Major Hasan allegedly acquired the weapons for this massacre. They talked with some of the staff there about his interest in magazine extensions to extend the amount of ammunition that his semiautomatic pistol could shoot before he switched magazines. So they spent a lot of time about sort of the ticktock leading up to the day of the massacre.

BLOCK: And from here, Martin, how does this court-martial proceed?

KASTE: Well, as it's pretty clear here, he's not going to be fighting them on the facts, necessarily, of what happened or who did them. He seems to be indicating, even though he's not a trained lawyer here, that he's going to find some way to insert his beliefs about the larger struggle in his mind here, world struggle between Islam and the U.S., into the trial if he can find a way to do it.

But the prosecution here is very interested in an airtight, deliberate case because this is a death penalty case. That's why Major Hasan can't plead guilty. He's not allowed to. The plea of not guilty was entered for him, and now the government has to very deliberately build this case, this death penalty case, against him.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Martin Kaste covering the court-martial of Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood in Texas. Martin, thanks.

KASTE: You're welcome.

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