Attorneys Assigned To Fort Hood Shooter Want To Back Out

There was an unexpected hold-up on day two of the court martial of Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, accused of gunning down fellow soldiers at Fort Hood. His "standby" attorneys have told the judge that don't believe it's ethical for them to keep assisting a man who they believe is trying to get the death penalty.

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The court-martial of the accused Fort Hood shooter has hit its first snag today. Defense attorneys assigned to help Nidal Hasan told the court they think he is trying to get the death penalty.

The Army psychiatrist is on trial for killing 13 people and injuring more than 30 at Fort Hood back in 2009. NPR's Martin Kaste is at Fort Hood, and he joins me now. And, Martin, this is now day two of the trial and a pretty big snag coming up here. Why are the defense lawyers making this point now?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, they told the judge they have actually been worried for some time about this situation. They point to the fact that, first, Hasan decided to act as his own lawyer even though he has no legal training, then during the jury selection process, he hardly questioned the potential jurors and didn't challenge those who might be leaning toward the death penalty.

But the defense lawyers say it was yesterday, the first day of the trial, when their suspicions were confirmed because the first thing Hasan did yesterday was admit he was the shooter.

BLOCK: And what problems does that pose for the attorneys?

KASTE: Well, there seems to be an ethical problem here for these lawyers. Under the current arrangement with him representing himself, they're required to help him with technical legal issues, court procedures, documents, the kind of thing he wouldn't know how to do. But they say it's repugnant for them - that's their word - for them as defense attorneys to give this kind of aid to someone who's basically taking a dive, legally speaking. So they've asked the court to release them from their obligation to give them this kind of technical assistance.

BLOCK: Well, does Nidal Hasan admit that this is what he is doing, that he is aiming for the death penalty?

KASTE: Not at all. Sitting today at the same table with those attorneys, he objected quite strenuously to their assertion that that's his strategy, that he's seeking the death penalty. It's actually the most vocal and assertive we've heard him so far this week. He has been quite docile up to this point.

He even tried to make a longer statement about why the defense attorneys were wrong in saying that this is what he's up to, but the judge wouldn't allow him to do that in the court. She recessed the trial until tomorrow morning so she could talk to him in private about what was really going on here.

BLOCK: Well, Martin, does this possibly derail the court-martial of Nidal Hasan completely?

KASTE: Well, it's a delicate situation here. The government has been so careful and painstaking in trying to build up an airtight prosecution here. They're really hoping to avoid any kind of grounds for a mistrial or for appeals later on. And now, all of the sudden, you've got this spectacle of the defendant at odds with the very attorneys who are supposed to be helping him. So at the very least it muddies the water quite a bit.

BLOCK: Martin, have you been able to talk with any legal experts about what's going on here and if there's any precedent for what might happen going forward?

KASTE: Yes. There was a professor of law from Texas Tech, who's a retired veteran JAG, a military lawyer from the Army, who has been watching this case here. He's, you know, been here at Fort Hood watching the proceedings. And he said he has never seen anything like it. He said he's never seen a case of this magnitude, with this problem of a defendant who wants to represent himself who's at odds with the lawyers who are there to help him do that.

And he says he really understands how this is a dilemma for top-notch defense attorneys, Army defense attorneys, as these are, to find themselves in a situation of aiding someone who seems to be barreling head on toward death penalty, which is just the kind of thing that they are trained to help people avoid. And he sees how they find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

BLOCK: OK. 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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