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Accused Fort Hood shooter to enter plea at pre-trial hearing in Texas

Nidal Hasan, charged with killing 13 people and wounding 31 in a November 2009 shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, is pictured in an undated
Nidal Hasan, charged with killing 13 people and wounding 31 in a November 2009 shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, is pictured in an undated

By Jim Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 is expected to enter a formal plea on the charges Tuesday in the last scheduled hearing before jury selection begins in his military trial.

Major Nidal Hasan, a U.S.-born Muslim who is representing himself, faces a possible death sentence for the attack on soldiers at a readiness facility preparing soldiers to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan that left 13 people dead and 32 wounded.

Earlier in the case, Hasan offered to plead guilty if the death penalty were taken off the table, an offer rejected by the judge, Colonel Tara Osborn.

Military code bars Hasan from pleading guilty to capital offenses, but he still could seek to plead guilty to some of the lesser charges on Tuesday, said retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Corn, an expert in military law.

"It is not uncommon in a military court for a person to plead guilty to a lower level of culpability, to get some mitigation before the jury," Corn, a law professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston, said on Monday.

Corn said Osborn would be under no obligation to accept a guilty plea, but a guilty plea might be seen as accepting responsibility by the jury of military officers who will hear the case. Under military law, a death sentence could be imposed only if the jury is unanimous in the decision.

Jeffrey Addicott, former Army prosecutor and head of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University, does not believe Hasan will plead guilty to any charges.

"He will let the system play itself out," Addicott said on Monday.

Fort Hood was a major deployment point for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hasan himself had been preparing to leave for Afghanistan with a unit assigned to help soldiers deal with mental issues. Hasan was shot by civilian post police during the attack and is paralyzed from the chest down.

The trial has been delayed several times, most recently for Osborn to decide whether Hasan could represent himself at trial and whether he could argue at trial that he was defending the Afghan Taliban when he opened fire.

Osborn has appointed Hasan's former defense attorneys to advise him on procedural issues and to be ready to step back in as his lawyers if necessary. She rejected his request to use a "defense of others" argument at trial.

Several issues remain to be addressed ahead of the trial including the questions to be used in jury selection and the witness lists. Jury selection is scheduled to begin on July 9 and opening statements no earlier than August 6.

(Editing by David Bailey and Lisa Shumaker)

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