Ex-soldier to face the man who tried to kill him in Fort Hood shooting
Trial starts today of Nidal Hasan over the killing of 13 US soldiers inside Fort Hood army base
Staff Sergeant Alonzo M. Lunsford Junior usually worked in the back of the Soldier Readiness Processing Centre, giving smallpox shots to deploying and returning troops at the Fort Hood Army base in Killeen, Texas. But on November 5, 2009, he was standing at the counter at the building's entrance after 1pm so that his colleagues could take a lunch break.
A soldier whom Lunsford recognised, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, walked in front of him. Moments later, Lunsford said, Hasan twice shouted "Allahu akbar," Arabic for "God is great," and opened fire.
In a matter of minutes, 100 rounds were fired, 13 people were fatally wounded and more than 30 others were injured. Lunsford, who was unarmed, was shot once in the head and six times in the body. He had played dead, and then tried to exit the building, but Hasan followed him outside and shot him in the back, he said.
It is not unusual for victims to face their assailants in court, as Lunsford will do today, when he testifies on the first day of Hasan's military trial. What is extraordinary is that Hasan, seated behind the defence table in a Fort Hood courtroom, may be the one asking Lunsford the questions during cross-examination.
Hasan is representing himself, one of many elements of his long-delayed court-martial that legal experts say will make it one of the most unpredictable and significant military trials in recent history.
"I will be cross-examined by the man who shot me," said Lunsford, 46, who retired from the army and remains blind in his left eye. "You can imagine all the emotions that are going to be coming up."
Nearly four years after the attack, Hasan - bearded, paralysed after he was shot by the police and thinner than he was in 2009 - will be wheeled into a courthouse a few kilometres from the readiness centre to face 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder. He claimed to have been trying to protect Taliban leaders from soldiers deploying to Afghanistan, and in his statements both in and out of the courtroom, he has acknowledged being the gunman.
Because of the magnitude of the crime, experts in military law said the only case they could compare it to was the 1971 court-martial of First Lieutenant William L. Calley Junior, the only soldier convicted in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, in which hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were killed by US troops.
"I can't think of a single act of military criminal misconduct since My Lai that was so grave," said Geoffrey S. Corn, a former army prosecutor who is a professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston.
If the jury sentences Hasan to death, the verdict will present a crucial test of the military's death penalty system, which has been criticised as ineffectual and faulty, with appellate courts overturning or commuting several death sentences over procedural errors. No US soldier has been executed since 1961.
Hasan is the only defendant in modern times to represent himself in a military capital-punishment case. The judge has forbidden him to present evidence of his claim that he was protecting the Taliban because she ruled it had no legal merit.
Victims and families say they have been denied combat- related benefits and medals. Lunsford said the Army withheld his pay during the time he spent in a military post-traumatic stress disorder programme and refused to cover an operation to remove the bullet still lodged in his back.
"We don't get passes the way Major Hasan got passes," said Lunsford .