U.S. Army shrink turned “holy warrior” Maj. Nidal Hasan took a first step as his own trial lawyer in court, admitting in his Opening Statement to the 13 anonymous jurors impaneled to hear the case: “I am the shooter.”
But by way of an explanation any believer in God can relate to, he apologized for the murders, saying: “We in the mujahideen are imperfect beings trying to establish a perfect religion. I apologize for any mistakes I have made in this endeavor.”
Right off the bat, he’s made two crucial mistakes. Or has he? The first is that he’s admitted to killing the 13 victims and maiming 30 others. The second is, he's proceeding without the help of a lawyer. Because the prosecution is seeking the death penalty if Hasan is convicted, he isn’t allowed to plead guilty under the Military Code. And he has a right to defend himself without the assistance of a lawyer during these proceedings as does anyone charged with a crime in a civilian or military court, but defendants rarely do.
One reason is that most people, even the guilty ones, don’t actually want to be found guilty, especially if they’re facing the death penalty. And there are mighty protections to help them avoid that result-including the right to remain silent, and the right to have assistance of an attorney free of charge if you can’t afford one. In other words, there is absolutely no reason to proceed without a lawyer unless you are either (a) arrogant or (b) want to or don’t care if you are found guilty.
Then there is the (c) answer, most frequently relied on by the self-proclaimed “political prisoner”: your defense lawyer will likely get bogged down in the Rules of Evidence and courtroom procedure and not expose the awful thing the government has done that compelled you to act the way you did.
Judges don’t like “political prisoners.” They usually don’t have trial experience and expect that the rules of procedure and evidence that structure trial work will be bent or ignored for them. They delay, disrupt and tangle things up through their lack of experience toward the predictable end of justice delayed if not totally denied. Consequently, judges almost never let them proceed uncounseled, often requiring that at least one attorney be appointed to “assist” in the proceedings even if that lawyer never actually addresses the court or a witness.
Hasan has no choice but to go to trial. But if he thinks he’s about to air his political grievances, or share his spin on murder as tenet of a more perfect union with God, in a US Military tribunal, he’s got a few surprises coming. If the prosecution is smart, and the judge is strong enough to run this trial as smoothly and as she can, Mr. Hasan will be given a fair trial without getting the political platform he is looking for. Whatever twisted religious arrogance it was that fueled his cry that “God is great!” before opening fire on dozens of unarmed human beings that November day, the knowledge that he might just get the martyrdom nod he and his ilk so deeply covet will have to be reward enough. The rest of us don’t want to hear it. And you, Mr. Hasan, are overruled.
Cynthia Lobo is a New York criminal defense attorney. She has a worked on high profile criminal cases, taught litigation at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington DC and has a radio talk show.