By Karen Brooks and Lisa Maria Garza
FORT HOOD, Texas (Reuters) - A U.S. Army psychiatrist who admitted shooting dozens of soldiers at a Texas base wants the death penalty, according to his standby defense lawyers, who refuse to help him die and want the judge to reduce their role in his court-martial.
Major Nidal Hasan, the U.S.-born Muslim who admits he killed 13 soldiers and wounded more than 30 others in November 2009, is acting as his own defense lawyer with a standby team on hand to ensure his case is handled properly.
"Should he decide he wants to fight the death penalty, we're ready to defend him today. However, since that does not appear to be the case, we request that we become truly standby counsel, that we not be ordered and forced by the court in assisting in achieving the goal of arriving at the death penalty," one of the lawyers, Lieutenant Colonel Kris Poppe, said on Wednesday.
Hasan, wearing green fatigues and a full beard, disputed the assertion by the standby lawyer, calling it a distortion. Military Judge Colonel Tara Osborn ended the court proceedings for the rest of the day to consider the lawyers' request to distance themselves from the case.
Poppe said he based his conclusion on documents that Hasan's civilian defense lawyer sent to Fox News, Hasan's questions for potential jurors during the jury selection process, and Hasan's opening statement on Tuesday, when he told the jury, "I was the shooter."
Hasan, who opened fire on unarmed soldiers days before he was to be deployed to Afghanistan, also told the jury he switched sides in what he called America's war on Islam, saying, "I was on the wrong side." He has previously said he was protecting fellow Muslims from imminent threat.
He spoke quietly from his wheelchair, taking off a green knit cap when the court was in session.
"REPUGNANT TO DEFENSE"
The standby defense team wants to avoid being forced by the court to help Hasan achieve the death penalty, calling such a goal "repugnant to defense counsel and contrary to what our professional obligations are."
Hasan was "encouraging or working toward the death penalty," Poppe told the judge.
Hasan, who was paralyzed from the waist down when shot by military police during the attack, called Poppe's conclusion "a twist of the facts."
Hasan became more animated while defending his position, periodically interrupting the judge.
"Colonel Poppe has made an assertion that is inaccurate. I feel compelled to object. It's inaccurate and I'd like to clarify that," Hasan said.
The judge asked Hasan to submit his arguments in writing, and when Hasan refused, saying he wanted to explain his position orally, she shut down the hearing so it could continue in private.
The exchange took place without the presence of the 13 military officers of the jury, comprising nine colonels, three lieutenant colonels and a major. Nine votes are needed for a conviction but a unanimous verdict of guilty is required for execution to be an option.
Hasan previously offered to plead guilty in return for being spared the death penalty, but Osborn rejected that request based on the military's policy against allowing such pleas in capital cases.
He faces 13 charges of premeditated murder and 32 charges of attempted premeditated murder. The dead were 12 active duty soldiers and a retired chief warrant officer who worked as a civilian employee at the base. The victims were unarmed, as is normal for military personnel on bases such as Fort Hood.
Prosecutors declined to bring terrorism charges against Hasan, saying it would prejudice the trial.
A review by a former FBI director found Hasan had exchanged emails with Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing. Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.
(Additional reporting Jana J. Pruet; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Claudia Parsons)