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After long delay, Fort Hood massacre trial set to start Tuesday

U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan, accused of killing 13 soldiers in a 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage, is seen in a courtroom sketch as he sits with his legal team in front of military judge Colonel Tara Osborn at his court martial at Fort Hood, Texas on July 9.Brigitte Woosley / Reuters file

The trial of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of perpetrating one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history, is slated to begin Tuesday — nearly four years after 13 unarmed soldiers were gunned down and 32 others wounded at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas.

Prosecutors are expected to argue at the start of the long-delayed court martial that Hasan, 42, a Muslim-American, immersed himself in radical Islam before carrying out the horrific rampage Nov. 5, 2009, allegedly searching for terms like “jihad” and “Taliban” on the Web.

In a bizarre but not uncommon move among radicalized Islamists, Hasan will act as his own defense at the trial after rejecting his right to counsel.

That means he will be permitted to personally cross-examine any witness during the proceeding, including shooting victims and former Fort Hood police sergeant Mark Todd, who wounded Hasan and brought the rampage to an end, according to Reuters.

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"It's his right under the Constitution to cross-examine all of these people," said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. "Will he get out of hand? Will there be scenes in the courtroom? I imagine there will be."

He added, "You're going to see some fireworks."

A military judge June 14 barred Hasan from arguing that he was legally acting to protect Taliban leaders when he opened fire at the sprawling military post. He has said the slayings were a premeditated “defense of others” to safeguard Mullah Mohammed Omar and other key Taliban figureheads in Afghanistan from strikes by the U.S. military.

Fidell said Hasan may nonetheless inject ideology into his defense.

"My hunch is that he will try to ask questions that have a political edge to them," he said. "The judge will presumably not permit that."

Six days ahead of his trial, Hasan reportedly sent seven pages of handwritten and typed documents to Fox News, in which he appears to renounce his U.S. citizenship, forsake his military oath as a commissioned Army officer, and sheds light on his ties to the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

In one document, dated Oct. 18, 2012, Hasan, who has been in the service since 1995, purportedly writes: “I, Nidal Malik Hasan, am compelled to renounce any oaths of allegiances that require me to support/defend (any) man made constitution over the commandments mandated in Islam … I therefore formally renounce my oath of office … this includes my oath of U.S. citizenship.”

Officials said Hasan’s abdication of his citizenship has no legal standing, Reuters reported.

In another document, Hasan refers to Awlaki — the first American targeted for murder by the Central Intelligence Agency — as “my teacher, mentor and friend.”

Nidal Hasan, an the Army psychiatrist charged in the deadly 2009 Fort Hood shootings.Bell County Sheriff's Department via The Temple Daily Telegram via AP

Hasan, who was due to be deployed to Afghanistan before the massacre, allegedly rushed into a medical processing center just after 1p.m. on Nov. 5, 2009, and unleashed a hail of bullets at soldiers returning from or about to be deployed overseas.

Military police and civilian officers returned Hasan’s deadly fire, shooting him four times and leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. He is confined to a wheelchair.

Hasan faces the death penalty if he is convicted of 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted murder.

Colonel Tara Osborn, the military judge in the case, turned down Hasan’s offer to plead guilty as a way of avoiding the death penalty. 

"Guilty pleas are not permitted in capital cases in the military," Fidell noted.

A unanimous guilty verdict is required for execution to be ordered, but even that decision would likely be subject to years — potentially decades — of complex appeals, according to Reuters.

He faces a panel of 13 senior Army officers — including nine colonels, three lieutenant colonels, and one major.

Osborn on Friday granted prosecutors request to present evidence that Hasan searched for words like "jihad" and "Taliban" in the days, and hours, before the massacre. They have also requested to introduce academic papers Hasan wrote during his master's program at Walter Reed Medical Center, in which he defended suicide bombings, according to Reuters.

The trial was continually delayed over procedural snafus, such as whether Hasan should be exempt from the military’s strict regulation of grooming standards and permitted to keep his thick beard, which he has said he wears as an expression of his Islamic faith — and because he has had a premonition that he will die soon.

"That was utterly unnecessary," Fidell said, referencing the wrangling over Hasan's facial hair. 

Lisa Marie Windsor, a veteran of the Judge Advocate General Corps who has played a role in over 75 military cases, told Reuters that the extended delay is rare.

“This case has certainly been through the wringer and unfortunately at the detriment of the victims, who want some closure,” Windsor told Reuters.

Military legal experts have said that Hasan’s behavior in the months and years leading up to the trial was clearly part of a strategy to stunt the court proceedings.

“Obviously this stunt is not genuine,” Jeffrey Addicott, a former legal adviser to the Army Special Forces, told NBC News in June 2012. “And if it’s genuine, his religion is what motivated him to murder people, so it’s not likely that would go over well for him in the long run anyway.”

In spite of the severity of the charges leveled against Hasan, he has reportedly received treatment in jail that many victims consider unwarranted, according to NBCDFW.com.

Hasan is ferried by helicopter nearly every day for the 20-mile trip between the Bell County Jail, where he is being held, and the Fort Hood base, and he apparently lives under the watch of a private guard for at least 12 hours a day — all courtesy of the U.S. Army and taxpayers, NBCDFW.com reported.

The Army told NBCDFW that the helicopter rides are required because the jail does not have the necessary facilities for Hasan to prepare his legal defense, and carrying Hasan by car engenders security issues.

Victims of the rampage, however, told NBCDFW that the special considerations for Hasan do not match the treatment they have received since the shooting.

Howard Berry told the station that his son, Staff Sgt. Josh Berry, could not understand why the Army provided Hasan with relatively comfortable conditions while allegedly letting victims fall to the wayside.

“He felt there were more considerations [that] were being given to the shooter that weren’t being given to the victims and he couldn’t understand,” Howard Berry told the station.

His son committed suicide on Feb. 13, 2013, following years of battling post-traumatic stress brought on by the Fort Hood rampage, his family told NBCDFW.com.

M. Alex Johnson and Andrew Mach of NBC News contributed to this report. Reuters also contributed.

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