NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


November 12, 2009

Though the suspect in the shooting rampage at Fort Hood could face the death penalty, he will be prosecuted in a military justice system where no one has been executed in nearly a half-century, says the Associated Press (AP).

Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist suspected in the rampage that killed 13 people at the Army installation in Texas last week, might also benefit from protections the military provides defendants that are greater than those offered in civilian federal courts, says the AP.

Much about Hasan's case will be decided by a senior Army officer, including whether to seek the death penalty and, in the event Hasan is convicted of capital murder, whether to commute a possible death sentence to life in prison.  However, the president must personally approve the execution before it can be carried out:

  • There hasn't been a military execution since 1961, though five men sit on the military's death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
  • When President George W. Bush signed Ronald Gray's execution order in July 2008, it was the first time a president had done so in 51 years.
  • In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower approved the execution of John Bennett, an Army private convicted of raping and attempting to kill an 11-year-old Austrian girl; Bennett was hanged in 1961.

Federal civilian executions also are rare:

  • Three men, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, have been killed by lethal injection in federal cases since 2001.
  • Death penalties carried out by states are more common -- Tuesday night's execution of John Allen Muhammad in the Washington, D.C., sniper case was Virginia's second of the year.

Experts in the military justice system said the decision to prosecute Hasan in military court appears clear cut: The shootings took place on an Army base.  The suspect is an Army officer and all but one of those killed also were officers or enlisted personnel.  The other person who was killed worked at Fort Hood.

Authorities would have had more reason to take the case to federal court if they had found evidence Hasan acted with the support or training of a terrorist group, but investigators believe he acted alone, without outside direction.

Source: Mark Sherman, "Death penalty rare, executions rarer in military," Associated Press/, November 11, 2009.


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