Emergency personnel take a wounded person on a stretcher to an awaiting ambulance at the scene at the US Army base in Fort Hood Texas where 13 people were killed in 2009. Photo: AP
Killeen, Texas: Staff Sergeant Alonzo Lunsford Jr usually worked in the back of the Soldier Readiness Processing Centre, giving smallpox shots to deploying and returning troops at the Fort Hood Army base here. But on November 5, 2009, he was standing at the counter at the building's entrance after 1pm, so that his colleagues could take a lunch break.
A soldier whom Sergeant Lunsford recognised, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, walked in front of him. Moments later, Sergeant Lunsford said, Major Hasan twice shouted "Allahu akbar," Arabic for "God is great," and opened fire.
I will be cross-examined by the man who shot me
In a matter of minutes, 100 rounds were fired, 13 people were dead and more than 30 others were wounded. Sergeant Lunsford, who was unarmed, was shot once in the head and six times in the body. He had played dead, and then tried to exit the building, but Major Hasan followed him outside and shot him in the back, he said.
A soldier is comforted by a colleague after the Fort Hood massacre in 2009. Photo: AFP
It is not unusual for victims to face their assailants in court, as Sergeant Lunsford will do in Fort Hood on Tuesday, when he testifies on the first day of Major Hasan's military trial. What is extraordinary is that Major Hasan, seated behind the defence table in a military courtroom, may be the one asking Sergeant Lunsford the questions during cross-examination.
Major Hasan is representing himself, one of many elements of his long-delayed court-martial that legal experts say will make it one of the most unpredictable and significant military trials in recent history.
"I will be cross-examined by the man who shot me," said Sergeant Lunsford, 46, who retired from the Army and remains blind in his left eye. "You can imagine all the emotions that are going to be coming up."
Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged in the deadly 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage. Photo: AP
Nearly four years after the attack, Major Hasan - bearded, paralysed after he was shot by the police and thinner than he was in 2009 - will be wheeled into a courthouse a few kilometres from the readiness centre to face 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder. He claimed to have been trying to protect Taliban leaders from soldiers deploying to Afghanistan, and in his statements both in and out of the courtroom, he has acknowledged being the gunman.
Because of the magnitude of the crime, experts in military law said the only case they could compare it to was the 1971 court-martial of First Lieutenant William Calley Jr, the only soldier convicted in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, in which hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were killed by US troops.
"I can't think of a single act of military criminal misconduct since My Lai that was so grave," said Geoffrey Corn, a former Army prosecutor who is a professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston.
"It's kind of faded a little bit. We have Newtown and the Colorado shooting and the more recent tragedies. But when the evidence of what happened in that building becomes more public, it's very heartbreaking stuff."
The Army has spent more than $US5 million ($5.6 million) on the case, surrounding the outside of the courthouse with giant sand-packed barriers that protect against explosions and transporting Major Hasan for hearings by helicopter from the nearby Bell County Jail, where he is being held at Army expense.
The Army has also paid for his military defence lawyers and experts as well as the monthly rental costs for a trailer next to the courthouse that one lawyer called "the Hasan hut," where he works on his case under tight security.
The accommodations underscore the Army's methodical pursuit of its goal - to persuade a jury of 13 Army officers to find Major Hasan guilty and sentence him to death, while minimising any issues that could overturn a death sentence on appeal. Major Hasan had offered to plead guilty, but Army prosecutors refused him.
Acceptance of a guilty plea would have taken the death penalty off the table, because military law prohibits defendants in capital punishment cases from pleading guilty. The judge, Colonel Tara Osborn, also refused to accept his offer to plead guilty, citing the military law.
If the jury sentences Major Hasan to death, the verdict will present a crucial test of the military's death penalty system, which has been criticised as ineffectual and faulty, with appellate courts overturning or commuting several death sentences over procedural errors. No US soldier has been executed since 1961, when John Bennett, an Army private convicted of the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old Austrian girl, was hanged at Fort Leavenworth.
Major Hasan is the only defendant in modern times to represent himself in a military capital-punishment case. The judge has forbidden him to present evidence of his claim that he was protecting the Taliban because she ruled it had no legal merit, although he can testify as to his own motivations should he take the stand. She also said that when Army prosecutors give their opening statements, they cannot use emails exchanged before the attack between Major Hasan and Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric who was killed in 2011 in a CIA drone strike in Yemen.
As a result, it remains unclear how much the trial, which is expected to last weeks, will explore his radical Islamic beliefs. On Friday, Colonel Osborn allowed Army prosecutors to introduce as evidence the Internet searches Hasan did on the Taliban and jihad before the shooting, but she has not yet ruled on whether they can use other evidence, including his academic presentations in which he justified suicide bombing.
Victims and their lawyers have criticised Pentagon officials for describing the attack as an episode of workplace violence and not an act of terrorism, and they worry that the trial will avoid labeling Major Hasan as they see him - a homegrown terrorist.
"It seems that the way this is proceeding, any hint that this was an act of terror will not be allowed, and that to me is preposterous," said Neal Sher, one of the lawyers representing victims and their families in a civil lawsuit accusing Pentagon and federal officials of knowing Hasan was a security threat and failing to act before the attack.
Victims and their families say they have been denied combat-related medical benefits and Purple Hearts, and several of the prosecution's witnesses, including Sergeant Lunsford, are plaintiffs in the lawsuit and have criticised the way the Army has treated them. Sergeant Lunsford said the Army garnished his pay during the time he spent in a military post-traumatic stress disorder program and refused to cover an operation to remove the bullet still lodged in his back.
"We don't get passes the way Major Hasan got passes," said Sergeant Lunsford, now a high school basketball coach in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
"Each one of us has gotten a raw deal somewhere down the line."
New York Times