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Fort Hood shooter convicted of massacre, could get death penalty

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 Karen Brooks and Jana J. Pruet

FORT HOOD, Texas (Reuters) - A military jury convicted U.S. Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan on Friday of killing 13 people and wounding 31 others in 2009 when he walked into a medical facility at Fort Hood, Texas, yelled "Allahu akbar" and opened fire on unarmed soldiers with a laser-sighted handgun.

It was the deadliest mass murder ever at a U.S. military base.

The convictions mean Hasan could face the death penalty by lethal injection, possibly making him the first soldier to be executed by the U.S. military since 1961.

Hasan, dressed in combat fatigues and seated in a wheelchair after being paralyzed from the waist down when shot by police to end the rampage, stared directly at the jury while the panel's president read the verdict. Afterward he looked down, stroking his beard.

The jury of 13 combat veterans - nine colonels, three lieutenant colonels, and one major - deliberated about three hours on Thursday afternoon and another three hours on Friday morning. They will determine Hasan's sentence after hearing the penalty phase of the court-martial starting on Monday.

Hasan, 42, told mental health evaluators he wanted to become a martyr and lawyers assisting him said he was actively seeking the death penalty. Hasan disputed that claim without outright denying it, then sat passively as prosecutors presented overwhelming evidence against him.

Hasan, an American-born Muslim who acted as his own defense lawyer, admitted in his opening statement to killing 13 people and wounding 31, saying he switched sides in what he considered a U.S. war on Islam. He was also charged with attempted premeditated murder on a 32nd person he shot at and missed.

Twelve of the dead were active duty soldiers and one was retired. Of the wounded, 30 were soldiers and one a police officer.

Prosecutors opted against bringing terrorism charges, and the conviction renewed calls by advocates who are seeking combat benefits for the victims similar to those paid to victims of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Two attorneys representing some of the victims criticized the Department of Defense for classifying the attack as "workplace violence," and Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson vowed to fight for state veterans' benefits such as access to below-market interest rates for loans to buy land.

"MY BABY, MY BABY"

In their closing statement, prosecutors stressed that Hasan's rampage on November 5, 2009, was premeditated, noting that he wore a uniform even though he was on leave and stuffed his pockets with paper towels to prevent some 20 magazines of ammunition from jingling.

Prosecutors called 89 witnesses in two weeks of testimony, with many describing in horrific detail the bloodbath in and around a medical building at Fort Hood.

Private Francheska Velez, who was pregnant, screamed "my baby, my baby" before being shot dead. Others were gunned down while trying stop Hasan, and survivors reported seeing the red laser of his weapon flashing across their eyes. Investigators recovered 146 shell casings from the scene.

Amid speculation about the emotional toll on victims who may have had to face cross-examination from him, Hasan spared them from questioning.

For Hasan to be eligible for the death penalty, the jury needed to find he killed at least two people, and at least one of those had to be a unanimous premeditated murder conviction.

The jury must also be unanimous in order to impose the death penalty, which would trigger a lengthy process requiring the approval of the Fort Hood commanding general, and later the president of the United States, in order for there to be an execution.

The shootings came at a time of heightened tensions over the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which strained relations between the United States and countries with predominantly Muslim populations.

Hasan opened fire at an area where soldiers were being evaluated before being sent to Iraq and Afghanistan or after returning home, yelling "Allahu akbar" ("God is greatest" in Arabic), according to several witnesses.

Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, praised Hasan as a hero and "a man of conscience." U.S. intelligence officials say Hasan had sent emails to Awlaki, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011. The judge, Colonel Tara Osborn, blocked those emails from being submitted as evidence in the trial.

Hasan told the judge at one point during the trial his attack was motivated by "an illegal war" and that he had "adequate provocation" to launch the attack on soldiers readying to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hasan's trial took place at the same time as two other high-profile courts-martial. Also on Friday, Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was sentenced to life in prison for killing 16 Afghan civilians in 2012. On Wednesday, U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years for providing secret files to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

(Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)

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