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Ft. Hood gunman's trial must move ahead, but it needs to be fair as well

Jun 6, 2013 - By The Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The court-martial of Army Maj. Nidal Hasan on charges of killing 13 people and wounding 32 others at Fort Hood in 2009 has been an exercise in frustration for the victims and their families, as well as for observers who believe that the only proper outcome is his conviction and execution.

But the proceedings are also an exercise in American principles: the careful balancing of a criminal defendant's fundamental constitutional rights with the equally important public interests in justice and finality.

The process can seem excruciating, but getting it right is essential.

There is little question that Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, is the man who opened fire on fellow soldiers, most of them preparing for deployment to Afghanistan.

But military prosecutors still must meet legal standards to prove that he committed murder and attempted murder, then they must make a convincing case for the death penalty.

The trial, with a jury chosen from officers stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., must be fair, and Col. Tara Osborn, the presiding judge, must avoid errors that could result in a conviction being overturned on appeal.

That's why Osborn carefully weighed whether Hasan could physically handle his own defense during a multiweek trial before she granted his request to represent himself. (Shot by Fort Hood police, he is paralyzed below the chest.)

The judge must also maintain control of the courtroom to protect the integrity of the trial.

That's why she told Hasan he couldn't "give a long, rambling speech" without supporting evidence or get "personal" with witnesses, according to a report by The Killeen Daily Herald.

The lawyers who had been representing Hasan will continue to be present but will step in only if Hasan asks or the judge orders it. If he handles presentation of evidence, that sets up the difficult dynamic of him questioning witnesses he is alleged to have wounded.

At a hearing Tuesday, Hasan said he planned to argue that he attacked soldiers being sent to Afghanistan in order to protect the Taliban from them.

Osborn is expected to decide whether to delay the trial for three months so Hasan can prepare that defense, the Daily Herald reported. If she doesn't, jury selection could start next week.

The pressure is increasing to move this forward. But fairness and finality must work jointly for justice to be achieved.

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