US military law: court-martial beginning for Fort Hood shooting suspect

The court-martial of 42-year-old Maj. Nidal Hasan, the U.S.-born Army military psychiatrist accused of shooting several people at Fort Hood in central Texas in 2009, is scheduled to begin before a jury of 13 military officers in early August 2013. Representing himself before the military tribunal despite the possibility of a death sentence or lifetime confinement without parole, Hasan is charged with 13 courts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder.

Hasan reportedly released to Fox News extensive writings in which he relinquishes his citizenship and military oath, expresses regret for having served and says the U.S. is at war with Islam. According to the Associated Press, the military judge would not let the defendant ask questions of the jury panel about his "defense of others" argument that he was protecting Taliban members in Afghanistan when he allegedly shot U.S. service members.

Although the court-martial is being held at Fort Hood, the jurors have been chosen from military assignments across the country.

The court-martial

Basically, a court-martial is the U.S. military's criminal court in which service members face charges of violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice or UCMJ, violation of the law of war, criminal charges or military infractions like unauthorized absence. Courts-martial can be held anywhere.

Depending on the seriousness of the charges, punishment in a court-martial can be severe and include loss of military pay and benefits, imprisonment and even the death penalty in some matters.

Here are the three kinds of courts-martial:

  • General: compares to a felony trial in civilian court.
  • Special: compares to a misdemeanor trial in civilian court.
  • Summary: holds a simple proceeding for minor charges.

While certain convictions that bring relatively severe types of courts-martial sentences like dishonorable discharges or death are automatically appealed, other convictions may be appealed voluntarily by military defendants.

Right to legal counsel in courts-martial

While Hasan has reportedly chosen to represent himself before the military tribunal, a service member facing criminal or military charges before a court-martial has the right to effective legal representation.

If you are a U.S. military service member facing any of the three types of courts-martial, contact an experienced military law attorney to help build a vigorous defense. Your defense lawyer, if he or she becomes involved early enough, can fight to protect your rights even at the investigation stage and in preliminary proceedings before any actual charges are brought.

In addition, a knowledgeable military appeal attorney can determine whether a court-martial conviction can and should be appealed.