FORT HOOD, Texas - The Army psychiatrist charged in the deadly 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage is to go on trial in three months, after several delays in the case, including an unexpected snag over his beard.
A military judge Thursday set Maj. Nidal Hasan's court-martial for May 29 at the Texas Army post. After about four weeks of jury selection, testimony is to begin July 1.
The judge, Col. Tara Osborn, said she expects testimony in the trial to last up to three months. The government has nearly 300 witnesses.
Hasan, 42, faces the death penalty or life without parole if convicted of 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in the worst mass shooting on a U.S. military installation.
Hasan's trial initially was set for last March, then delayed to June and then to August after defense attorneys said they needed more time to prepare. Less than a week before it was to start, the trial unexpectedly was put on hold when Hasan appealed an order by then-judge Col. Gregory Gross that his beard would be forcibly shaved unless he removed it before trial. Although facial hair violates Army rules, Hasan started growing a beard last summer, saying it was required by his Muslim faith.
Hasan appealed again in September after Gross issued a definitive, written order for the forced shaving. Proceedings resumed in December after the appeals court ousted Gross from the case and threw out his order.
Osborn, the new judge, won't order Hasan to shave. If he still has a beard at trial, jurors likely would be told not to consider his appearance when deciding on a verdict.
Osborn didn't rule Thursday on defense requests to select jurors from another military branch instead of the Army - an unprecedented action for a court-martial - or to move the trial away from Fort Hood.
Lt. Col. Kris Poppe, lead defense attorney, said his client could not get a fair trial at Fort Hood because of rampant hostility, such as the extreme security measures that seem to indicate Hasan is a target or is dangerous. He also said jurors should come from the Navy or Air Force because Army officers had been exposed to more pretrial publicity about the case.
But prosecutors said extra security would be in place no matter where the trial was held because it was such a high-profile case. They also said only 20 of the 140 potential jurors were from Fort Hood.
About 40 percent of the group asked to be recused in jury questionnaires, and only 99 would-be jurors remain, prosecutors said.
Osborn told prosecutors and defense attorneys to submit written opinions on whether Hasan can plead guilty to his current charges or to lesser charges of unpremeditated murder, which do not carry the death penalty.
Army rules prohibit a judge from accepting a guilty plea in a death penalty case. However, defense attorneys have said Hasan wants to plead guilty to accept responsibility.
Even if Hasan were to plead guilty to lesser charges of unpremeditated murder, prosecutors would proceed with the trial on the premeditated murder charges. Military law experts say Hasan's plea would be a strategy to try to avoid execution by seeming sympathetic to jurors.