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U.S. military court appoints new judge in Fort Hood massacre case

By Jim Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - The U.S. Army appointed on Tuesday a military judge who has presided over several closely watched cases to be the new judge in the court martial of alleged Fort Hood gunman Major Nidal Hasan, according to an Army statement.

The appointment of Colonel Tara Osborn comes one day after the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces removed Colonel Gregory Gross from the case, questioning his impartiality.

Osborn is currently chief judge for the Army's Second Judicial Circuit. In that role, Osborn has presided over criminal trials and oversees judicial operations at military operations in seven southeastern states, according to the Army.

Osborn is also a former military prosecutor and a former special counsel to the Assistant Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice. She was the first Judge Advocate General officer in Iraq, where she was awarded the Bronze Star.

Among the cases Osborn has handled is the court martial of a Fort Stewart soldier who was charged with murdering his squad leader and another sergeant at a forward patrol base in Iraq in 2008.

Like the Hasan case, that court martial involved the possibility of the death penalty.

Hasan, 42, is charged with killing 13 soldiers and support personnel when he opened fire inside a billeting room at Fort Hood in November of 2009. It is the worst shooting incident ever at a U.S. Army post.

Philip Anthony, a prominent California-based trial consultant who is not involved in the Hasan case, said the replacement of the judge after several months of delays may jump-start the case.

"I think this changing of the guard, so to speak, may actually be a catalyst for quicker action on the part of the prosecution," Anthony told Reuters.

A timetable for Osborn's arrival at Ft. Hood has not been determined. Among the first issues awaiting her will be what to do about Hasan's full beard which he began wearing into the courtroom in June.

The legal tug-of-war over the beard, which is a violation of Army grooming regulations, was one of the factors cited by the appeals court for Gross' removal as trial judge, but the court did not rule on whether Hasan can continue to have the beard.

Although full beards are prohibited by Army regulations, a handful of religious exemptions have been granted. Hasan says having the beard is his religious duty as a devout Muslim.

(Reporting By Jim Forsyth; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Eric Walsh)

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