By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Military prosecutors urged an appeals court on Wednesday to allow accused Fort Hood gunman Major Nidal Hasan to be forcibly shaved if he continues to refuse to remove his beard for his court martial, saying the beard could inflame a jury panel to his detriment.
Hasan is accused of opening fire at a deployment center at Fort Hood, Texas, on November 5, 2009 and faces 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in the shooting at the sprawling Army base.
He faces the death penalty if convicted of murder. A practicing Muslim, 41-year-old Hasan grew a beard as an expression of his religious beliefs, his attorneys said. But the facial hair is in violation of Army grooming regulations.
"The current rules for courts martial impose an obligation upon the accused to appear in the proper uniform during court martial, and an accused service member who refuses to present a proper military appearance may be compelled to do so," military prosecutors told the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in a 31-page brief.
Hasan has been repeatedly ordered removed from the courtroom by the presiding judge, Colonel Gregory Gross, because of his beard and has been held in contempt of court five times and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine.
Last week, Gross appeared ready to order soldiers to forcibly shave Hasan, but the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces stepped in, saying it would decide whether Gross has the authority to compel Hasan to be clean-shaven.
The court martial, which was due to begin on Monday, will be delayed until the appeals court issues its ruling.
The Court of Appeals previously rejected Hasan's request for a "religious accommodation" to wear a beard. Such an exemption has been granted to some men who follow the Sikh faith.
Gross has made it clear that allowing him to wear a beard during the court martial would be grounds for appeal, something military prosecutors stressed in the filing.
"Simply because the accused voluntarily chooses to wear a beard does not mean the military judge must 'take the dare' and run the risk that the accused will further inflame the panel to his own detriment," the prosecutors said.
They pointed out that the panel, the military term for a court martial jury, will be made up of officers who may be upset with the sight of a fellow officer "out of uniform."
Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, was preparing for military deployment to Afghanistan when he allegedly opened fire at a Fort Hood deployment center.
During the shooting, he was paralyzed from the chest down by bullet wounds inflicted by civilian police officers.
(Editing By Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)