The military justice system seems ridiculously antiquated and ineffective when it comes to capital cases. The trial of the gun-wielding doctor accused of killing 13 people and wounding 30 at Fort Hood, Texas, finally has begun four years after the incident. The entire process, including appeals, is expected to drag on for years more.
Major Nidel Malik Hasan wanted to plead guilty in the shooting deaths at the crowded post medical center in 2009. But that would have nullified a death sentence, which Army prosecutors badly want. There is no doubt about his guilt. He admits it. Besides, everyone in the vicinity saw his murderous action, which he contends was stimulated by his sympathy for the Taliban. He was wounded by police and left paralyzed.
The taxpayers already have spent some $5 million on this case and there can be no clear estimate of how much more will be expended. The government's chances of executing the 42-year-old medical doctor seem far longer than those of his living out the rest of his life on death row. Apparently, it would be 10 to 15 years before his appeals were exhausted. One man on death row has been there 24 years. In fact, the last military execution was in 1961.
Even after all that time, the president of the United States -- whoever that may be -- would have to order the death sentence carried out.
What a travesty this is. The survivors and the relatives of those assassinated should be able to expect some closure to this tragedy, apparently born out of mindless religious fanaticism. That's not going to happen soon.
I have never been in favor of the death penalty, but there are cases so heinous and open and shut that they almost demand it. This certainly is one of them. Another is the case of Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man who kidnapped, tortured and raped three women for over a decade and was allowed to plead guilty. Taxpayers will feed and house him until his death. Because he's in his early 50s, that could be a long time.
Hasan is in the rare position of defending himself and, as the national press has noted, of questioning some of his victims, many who apparently feel the Army has been more generous to him than them.
The New York Times wrote recently about one of those victims, a sergeant, who contends that the Army garnished his wages during the time he spent in a military post traumatic stress disorder program and refused to cover an operation to remove a bullet Hasan fired into his back as he fled the scene bleeding from other wounds.
Having covered while in the Army a significant military trial in which life was lost during a training exercise, I can attest to the capriciousness of the system. The top officer during an artillery training exercise was not paying attention when mortar shells began to fall short right in the center of an Army infantry platoon deployed in support. The final verdict resulted in a penalty for the commanding officer's dereliction -- but the penalty was far less severe than survivors and relatives of the dead considered fair. The junior officer on the firing line was absolved of any wrongdoing after it was decided rightly that he had tried to stop the barrage.
For the Army to have taken so long to bring Hasan to the bar of justice is despicable. It should have happened long ago. The system drastically needs overhauling or the pretense of delivering the most extreme verdict possible eliminated. Other military trials demanding capital punishment, resulting from atrocities committed in our years in Iraq and Afghanistan, are pending. They should be treated with at least a semblance of timeliness and finality.
(Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at email@example.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)