Death Sentence for Fort Hood Slaying and Attorney's Obligations

Today a military jury sentenced Maj. Nidan Hasan to death for the 2009 shooting in Fort Hood, TX. Thirteen people were killed after Hasan opened fire on military personnel at a medical center after yelling "Allahu akbar" -- Arabic for "God is great!" He and the soldiers in the medical center were scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan only weeks later. During the trial, Hasan had stated that he acted in order to protect Islam against American aggression and attacks. He acted as his own attorney and in his opening speech admitted to being the shooter. In fact, Hasan wanted to plead guilty to the crime but was unable to do so under military law which denies guilty pleas in possible death sentence cases. Hasan's actions during the trial were so strange as to prompt his back-up defense team to ask the judge to allow them to withdraw representation citing Hasan's actions as helping the prosecution. The military judge denied the defense attorneys' motion. 

Hasan's trial brings up a number of legal issues including defendant's competency to stand trial; defense attorney's responsibilities to a client with a seemingly self-harmful agenda; and, willingness of the legal system to assist in a defendant's desire for a certain outcome. From all accounts, Hasan intended to become a martyr for his cause, and even attempted to argue that the shooting was necessary to protect Islamic and Taliban leaders. Were his defense counsel obligated to dispute Hasan's mental condition and ability to represent himself? Could they have sufficiently demonstrated that Hasan was unstable and suicidal? Accounts presented at trial about Hasan's preparation for the rampage undeniably suggest that the shooting was meticulously premeditated, down to having practiced how to quickly reload his weapon. And would anyone dare argue that extreme religious beliefs may give rise to mental instability? At the same time, Hasan has done everything in his power to receive the death penalty. Should the system allow a defendant to just give up? Does the outcome matter in deciding that question? Let's say that he wanted to plead guilty and receive life in prison without parole. It is unlikely that any prosecutor would prevent him from doing so. So, is it only when someone's life is at stake that we want to cross our t's and dot our i's? What's the difference? 

The military has not executed anyone convicted since 1960's and due to the lengthy mandatory appeals process, it is unlikely that Hasan will be executed any time soon. However, the issues raised by this trial are unlike to just dissolve. Although it is less common to encounter civilian criminal defendants who purposefully seek the death penalty, the issues raised here are transferrable--what should an attorney do when a seemingly sane client is clearly acting against his interests and is refusing counsel? Should we stand by and let the system take over? Or should we fight tooth and nail to get justice for those who may want to just give up?


See also  SF Chronicle 8/28