By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - A new judge assigned to the court martial of Major Nidal Hasan, accused of a deadly 2009 shooting spree at a Texas military base, on Tuesday ordered preparations for a January trial start after months of delays over Hasan's insistence on wearing a beard in court.
Hasan is charged with killing 13 people and wounding 32 at Fort Hood in November, 2009, and faces the possibility of execution if convicted. His trial has been delayed for six months over Hasan's beard, which is a violation of Army grooming regulations.
Colonel Tara Osborn, a judge assigned earlier this month to take over the case, asked Hasan about the beard issue on Tuesday, Fort Hood spokesman Chris Haug said.
"She asked Hasan if he wore the beard of his own free will, and if he agreed to waive issues surrounding the beard," Haug said. "Hasan answered both questions in the affirmative."
Hasan says that he wears the beard because of his Muslim religion.
It was not immediately clear if this meant that Hasan could wear the beard when the trial starts. Army prosecutors have argued that Hasan must shave because the officers who will make up the panel or military jury will look down on a fellow officer who appears 'out of uniform' during a court proceeding.
The top military appeals court earlier this month removed the previous judge who on the case, saying he had shown indications of bias against Hasan.
The court said previous judge Colonel Gregory Gross constantly criticized Hasan for wearing the beard in court, repeatedly called it disruptive, held Hasan in contempt of court and imposed fines. Gross threatened to have Hasan forcibly shaved if he refused to comply.
The appeals court said there was no indication that Hasan's beard had disrupted the court proceedings, and said the issue of whether a soldier is out of uniform or is in violation of grooming restrictions is a matter for the post commander, not the trial judge. The appeals court did not rule on Hasan's request for an exemption to keep the beard.
Haug says Osborn indicated a desire to get Hasan's court martial back on track, ordering the lawyers in the case to work through Christmas to come up with a trial schedule.
"Osborn asked both parties to submit a proposed schedule to litigate these matters, which will begin in January of 2013," he said.
Relatives of several of the victims of the massacre have complained that constant delays are denying them justice.
(Editing by Greg McCune and Tim Dobbyn)