By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - A military judge will begin hearing arguments on Wednesday on whether to remove the possibility of the death penalty against Major Nidal Hasan when he is put on trial for the 2009 killing of 13 people on the Fort Hood, Texas, Army base.
More than three years after the Army psychiatrist allegedly opened fire in the worst shooting ever at a U.S. military base, a three-day hearing is scheduled at Fort Hood to try to put the long-delayed case back on track toward a court martial.
Defense lawyers last week asked the court to set aside the possibility of the death penalty against Hasan, who is accused of firing more than 200 rounds from his semi-automatic pistol before he was shot and wounded.
Hasan, 42, was left paralyzed from the chest down. In addition to the 13 soldiers killed, 32 people were wounded.
Proceedings were sidetracked for much of the last year over Hasan's request to keep his beard because he is a Muslim. A military judge held Hasan in contempt because a full beard is a violation of Army grooming regulations, and the judge threatened to have him forcibly shaved.
A new judge, Colonel Tara Osborn, was appointed last month to handle the case and the beard debate appears to have been put aside.
Experts in military law said the defense strategy appears to be to suggest the possibility of Hasan pleading guilty in return for the death penalty being removed from consideration.
"If that is what the defense seeks, they surely know that the chances that the military judge will grant the motion are nil," said Gary Solis, a law professor at the Georgetown University School of Law and the author of "The Law of Armed Conflict."
Military law does not allow pleading guilty in such cases of capital murder, said Richard Rosen, a law professor at Texas Tech University and a retired Army Colonel.
Geoffrey Corn, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and military law expert at the South Texas college of Law, said it is heartening that the trial judge appears to be committed to getting the proceedings going again.
Several of those wounded in the shooting have complained about the slow pace of military justice.
"I am hoping that she moves this case forward and sets it for trial, possibly this spring," Corn said.
(Reporting by Jim Forsyth; Editing by Greg McCune and Bob Burgdorfer)