Defending suspect in Army ‘tragedy’ a challenge for native

Defending a U.S. Army major, who is accused of shooting and killing 13 people and wounding dozens of others at Fort Hood in Texas, proves challenging for a former resident who is now part of the legal team tabbed to represent the accused shooter.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Kris Poppe, who worked with his father, John Poppe, after and before returning to serve as an attorney for the Judge Advocate General’s Office and for the U.S. Army, is a member of the defense team assigned to defend Maj. Nidal Hasan.

Hassan, 42, who is an American-born Muslim, is accused of killing 13 people and wounding more than 30 others at Fort Hood in Texas on Nov. 5, 2009. If convicted, Hassan faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

“The case has enormous legal challenges for our defense team and the military justice system,” Poppe told the Wapakoneta Daily News in an e-mail this past week. “It is also emotionally wrenching because of the terrible impact the Fort

Hood shooting had on the families of the victims, the survivors, and the family of Major Hasan as well. This was a great tragedy.”

Poppe and his team are defending Hasan, who reportedly shouted “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is greatest”) and opened fire in the Soldier Readiness Center at Fort Hood, located southwest of Killeen, Texas, killing 13 people and wounding 30 others in what is termed the “worst shooting ever to take place on an American military base.”

The 10-minute incident ended when Sgt. Kimberly D. Munley encountered the gunman as he exited a building in pursuit of a wounded soldier. Munley and the gunman exchanged shot with Munley being hit two times. In the meantime, civilian police officer Sgt. Mark Todd arrived and fired at the gunman. Todd hit and felled the gunman, who he approached and kicked a pistol out of the suspect’s hand. Hasan was then placed in handcuffs as he fell unconscious.

On Nov. 12, 2009, Hasan was charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder. On Dec. 2, 2009, he was charged with 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder.

Poppe, who is assigned to the U.S. Army Trial Defense Service, is a member of Hasan’s defense team which includes Maj. Christopher E. Martin and Maj. Joseph T. Marcee.

“I am proud to be a member of the U.S. Army Trial Defense Service,” said Poppe, who is a 1993 graduate of Ohio Northern University - Pettit College of Law and has 29 years of military service. “Our mission is to provide the best quality legal representation of soldiers accused of committing crimes no matter who the soldier is or how notorious the offense.

“All soldiers are entitled to a full defense and our legal team is doing our best to provide that to Major Hasan,” said Poppe, whose son, Lucas Poppe, also is attending the U.S. Military Academy. “When I step back and consider the talented and dedicated military lawyers and paralegal NCOs (non-commissioned officers) that the Army has assigned to this mission, it puts in real terms the idea that we are a nation committed to justice and upholding the Constitution.”

On Nov. 30, 2011, Poppe filed a motion for Col. Gregory Gross, the judge in the case, to recuse himself because of the appearance of bias as a judge. Gross said while he was present at Fort Hood the day of the shooting, he had no specific knowledge of the events as they transpired and that he distanced himself from any news or discussions of the incident. Gross denied the motion.

On Thursday, Poppe and the defense team presented arguments before seven judges on the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals at Fort Belvoir, Va. to permit Hasan to have a beard during hearings, which has delayed his murder trial.

Hasan, who shaved during his time in the Army but grew a beard during his time in jail, said he believes he is close to death and that shaving now would be a sin.

Poppe’s argument is shaving Hasan would violate his religious rights.

“My client, Major Nidal Hasan, is a Muslim who has grown a beard because he believes that his faith requires him to do so,” Poppe told the Wapakoneta Daily News on Friday. “In the hearing yesterday (Thursday) at the Army Court of Criminal appeals, we challenged the trial judge’s order that he be forcibly shaved and also asked that the military judge be disqualified for bias. We believe that the military judge exceeded his authority in ordering that Major Hasan be forcibly shaved and that Major Hasan decision to grow a beard is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Defense attorney Capt. Kristin McGrory, another member of the defense team, said military judges have no authority to order forcible shaving and military regulations authorize it for inmates only for safety and health reasons.

She also disputed Gross’ assertion that the beard would be a disruption during Hasan’s trial.

“The fact that he’s wearing a beard does not materially interfere with the course of the trial,” McGrory told the panel.

His attorneys also want the court to overturn the six contempt of court rulings issued against Hasan for having a beard at pretrial hearings this summer, when he first showed up in court with facial hair. During a ruling on April 18, Gross initially ruled to start the trial Aug. 20, but he delayed the start to Oct. 9 and it is being delayed further as appellate judges must rule on the beard issue.

Gross has ruled Hasan’s beard is a disruption and that defense attorneys have not proven that he is growing it for sincere religious reasons. Army prosecutors claim that Hasan grew the beard just before the trial was to start, so that witnesses would not be able to identify him in court.

According to a Fort Hood news release on the hearing, Chief Judge Col. William Kern repeatedly asked government attorney Capt. Kenneth Borgnino whether Gross had put his impartiality in question by issuing the order instead of leaving it up to Hasan’s chain of command. Hasan hasn’t been charged with a grooming violation.

Borgnino said Gross was merely controlling his courtroom. He said a bearded Hasan at trial would be as offensive to the judge and jury as an obscene signboard.

“This isn’t a situation where he’s missing a button off his uniform,” Borgnino said.

Allowing the beard, he said, “would be to cede control of the courtroom to the whims of the accused.”

Poppe said he does not know when the judges will rule on the matter. It is likely the matter will be appealed to the the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Services, the highest court dealing with military matters.

If Hasan must be shaven, it is not the first military defendant forcibly shaved. The Army has completed the task on five inmates since 2005, including one person who was forcibly shaved twice.

The Army has specific guidelines on forced shaving. A team of five military police officers restrains the inmate “with the reasonable force necessary,” and a medical professional is on hand in case of injuries. The shaving must be done with electric clippers and must be videotaped, according to Army rules.