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Fort Hood shooting suspect seeks to remove death penalty

By Jim Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Lawyers for a U.S. Army major accused of a deadly 2009 shooting spree at a Texas military post have asked for the death penalty to be disallowed in his court martial, possibly paving the way for a guilty plea in the case.

Fort Hood massacre suspect Major Nidal Hasan is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted murder in connection with the rampage at the sprawling Central Texas Army facility.

A three-day pre-trial hearing due to begin on Wednesday will include discussions on a defense request to remove the death penalty in the case, according to a written agenda for the hearing.

A guilty plea is not allowed if the death penalty is a possibility, and one item on the court docket refers to discussion of part of the military justice code involving guilty pleas in capital cases.

Hasan is accused of opening fire on a group of soldiers who were going through processing before being deployed to Afghanistan. He was shot four times by two civilian Fort Hood police officers, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.

Military commanders, shortly after Hasan was charged, gave prosecutors the right to seek the death penalty if he is convicted, a significant step given that the United States has not executed anyone under the Uniform Code of Military Justice since 1961.

The top U.S. military appellate court ruled last month that the judge who had been presiding over the case, Colonel Gregory Gross, was not impartial and ordered him removed, also setting aside an order that Hasan's beard be forcibly shaved.

Jeffrey Addicott, a law professor at St. Mary's University in San Antonio and a military justice expert, said his reading of the case was that the requested remedy by the defense for the judge's conduct was for the case only to move forward with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

"The government has prepared for this case for many years," Addicott said. "There is no incentive for them to accept anything that is less than the death penalty."

Fort Hood spokesman Christopher Haug said that Hasan's court-appointed defense attorney was "prohibited by regulation" from commenting on the agenda item regarding pleas in capital cases.

Hasan's lawyer, Lieutenant Colonel Kris Poppe, is also requesting that he receive the services of a media analyst at taxpayer expense to press a claim that Hasan has been the victim of unfair media coverage.

The delays in Hasan's court martial have frustrated survivors of the shooting. Attorneys for both sides spent much of 2012 arguing over whether Hasan could keep his beard, which he says he grew due to his Islamic faith.

Hasan was repeatedly held in contempt of court by the previous judge over the beard, which violates Army grooming regulations. Judge Gross ordered the beard removed.

But an appeals court ruled that Hasan's grooming standards were the concern of the post commander, not the trial judge, and the new judge in the case, Colonel Tara Osborn, barely mentioned the beard during her first pre-trial hearing last month.

(Reporting by Jim Forsyth; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan, Cynthia Johnston and Tim Dobbyn)

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