By Jennifer Rizzo
The trial of Maj. Nidal Hasan can move forward amid a dispute about the beard the Army psychiatrist grew while awaiting trial in the 2009 Fort Hood killings, an appeals court has ruled.
Hasan's court martial was to start last week at Fort Hood, in Killeen, Texas, where he is accused of killing 13 people and wounding 32, but was delayed when Hasan's legal team petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals to prevent the military judge from ordering Hasan's facial hair forcibly shaved. The presiding judge, Col. Gregory Gross, had threatened to order the shaving unless Hasan got rid of the beard, which is against Army regulations.
The Court of Appeals found that Hasan's petition was "premature" because Gross has not yet issued a definitive order. If an official order was given, the appeals court said, Hasan could file another petition.
The government contends it is within its right to order Hasan shaved, citing military regulations and the right to ensure "that a military trial proceeds without a distracting and disruptive sideshow."
The beard issue surfaced in June, when Hasan, who remains in the Army while awaiting trial, appeared at a hearing with the beard. Gross postponed that hearing, then found Hasan in contempt of court at a July hearing, fined him $1,000 and warned him he would be shaved by force unless he got rid of the beard.
Hasan had been expected to enter a plea during the case's last hearing, but the proceedings were halted by the appellate court. Hasan has previously expressed interest in pleading guilty, but military regulations bar a judge from accepting a guilty plea in a capital case.
His lawyers had been seeking a delay of the case until December, but Gross has refused and set last week as the trial date. Fort Hood officials are deciding when proceedings will begin again.
Hasan is accused of opening fire at the post's processing center, where soldiers were preparing to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq, in November 2009.
He faces a possible death sentence if convicted. He was paralyzed from the waist down in the shooting, when police officers exchanged fire with him.
Hasan, a U.S.-born citizen of Palestinian descent, was a licensed psychiatrist who joined the Army in 1997. He had been scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan before the killings, but had been telling his family since 2001 that he wanted to get out of the military.
He is a Muslim who had told his family he had been taunted after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Investigations that followed the killings found he had been communicating via e-mail with Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American radical cleric killed by a U.S. drone attack in 2011.
An FBI report in July found that a Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego that was investigating al-Awlaki passed two of the messages to another task force in the Washington area, where Hasan was living at the time. The report found those e-mails should have been given to the Pentagon, but the FBI saw no evidence of terrorist activities in his case, and believed the information in the e-mails was too sensitive to share. It noted that visiting extremist websites is not grounds for taking action.