GI Sentenced to Death for Fatal Attack
A military jury sentenced Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar to death Thursday night, unmoved by a brief apology he made from the witness stand asking forgiveness for killing two American officers and wounding 14 other soldiers in a nighttime grenade and rifle attack as the U.S. was on the verge of war with Iraq.
If the sentence is upheld, Akbar will be moved to the military death row at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., where the 34-year-old Muslim from South Los Angeles will join five other soldiers awaiting execution by lethal injection.
He is the first soldier since the Vietnam War to be convicted of killing a comrade during wartime.
Akbar turned on his fellow soldiers on March 23, 2003, tossing grenades into officers’ tents and shooting at them as they ran from the burning compound in Kuwait.
His assault was first thought to be a coordinated attack by Iraqis.
Spending less than a minute on the witness stand Thursday morning, Akbar gave an unsworn statement, which under military law meant he could not be cross-examined.
He spoke so softly that prosecutors cupped their ears to hear. Many of his victims sitting in the front rows had to lean in to hear.
Akbar’s lawyers wanted him to submit a six-page written statement to the jury. But they said he decided to speak directly to jurors because he thought the typed version, which was not released, sounded like an “excuse.”
He had but 31 words to say: “I want to apologize for the attack that occurred. I felt that my life was in jeopardy, and I had no other options. I also want to ask you for forgiveness.”
The 15 jurors, ranging in rank from sergeant to colonel, deliberated for seven hours; Akbar, standing as his death sentence was read, showed no emotion.
Except for a few muffled cries from relatives of his victims, the only sound in the courtroom was the clanging of iron chains placed on Akbar’s hands and wrists and around his waist as he was led away.
In closing arguments, prosecutor Lt. Col. Michael E. Mulligan pointed several times at Akbar and angrily said: “He is the enemy.”
Mulligan added: “War is a violent act. War is a dirty business carried out by rough men under extreme circumstances. War is bloody and gruesome. It is carried out by soldiers who have steeled themselves, suppressed their feelings and prepared themselves to fight.”
But the attack on Camp Pennsylvania two days before the invasion of Iraq “was Akbar’s war,” he said.
“This was a war on his own brigade, on innocent men, he launched in the middle of the night,” Mulligan said. “This is the hatred that lies in his heart.”
Mulligan displayed excerpts from Akbar’s 13-year computer diary on two screens and juxtaposed them against pictures of the dead.
“This is what he wrote, and this is what he did,” Mulligan said.
Some of the diary entries were hateful.
“I made a promise that if I am not able to achieve success because of some Caucasians, I will kill as many of them as possible,” he wrote in 1992.
A year later, he wrote: “I do not like the military. They have too much control over people’s lives. I suppose I am just anti-government.... A Muslim should see himself as a Muslim only. His loyalty should be to Islam only.”
In 1996, he wrote: “Anyone who stands in front of me shall be considered the enemy and dealt with accordingly,” and that “destroying America was my plan as a child, and as a juvenile and in college. Destroying America is my greatest goal.”
He joined the Army two years later. A month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and as the military was preparing for war, Akbar wrote: “I would love to stop working for the Army. It sucks big time.”
The two officers he killed were Army Capt. Christopher Seifert, 27, who was shot in the back, and Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone, 40, hit with 83 pieces of grenade shrapnel. The wounded soldiers’ injuries included collapsed lungs and shattered limbs.
Akbar enlisted in the Army to help defray his college loan payments after he graduated with an engineering degree from UC Davis. From the beginning, he was seen as a misfit in the ranks, a soldier prone to loneliness. He often walked and talked to himself for long periods.
Testimony showed that Akbar felt insulted by soldiers who disparaged Muslims as the U.S. prepared for war in the Middle East. When he was arrested shortly after the attack, Akbar said he feared American forces were going to rape and kill Muslim women in Iraq.
Defense lawyer Maj. David Coombs had asked for a more lenient sentence of life without the possibility of parole, contending that the Army command staff knew about Akbar’s problems.
“What was he doing in Kuwait? Why was he in the Army?” Coombs asked.
He said officers should have removed Akbar from the service. He said commanders should have demoted him from sergeant. He said the Army never should have ordered him to go to war.
“Their failure to act had consequences,” Coombs said. “The standard should not have been that everybody goes.”
Coombs said Akbar came from a poor family, that he did not have loving parents, and that there was evidence of child molestation in the home. He said Akbar grew up in a racially and religiously intolerant area; he attended Locke High School in Los Angeles, a facility covered in barbed wire.
“That was not a school,” Coombs said. “That was a prison.”
Nevertheless, Akbar succeeded, and portions of his diary attested to how “wonderful it felt” to get ahead.
His father, John Akbar, clutched a Bible on Thursday and cried after the death sentence was announced. “I don’t have anything to say,” he said.
Relatives of Seifert and Stone called the death sentence appropriate.
Seifert’s widow, Theresa, said: “Sgt. Akbar is a nonentity to me. What Sgt. Akbar said is irrelevant to me.”
Stone’s parents, Richard Stone and Betty Lenzi, said they came to court seeking justice for the dead and wounded -- “the real American soldiers” -- adding that “the evil in Hasan Akbar is unthinkable.”
The sentence must be reviewed by Maj. Gen. Virgil L. Packett II, who can approve the punishment or reduce it. He could also release Akbar from prison and restore him to the service, but that was seen as highly unlikely. Akbar’s case probably will be tied up in appeals for years.
The prisoner on military death row the longest, Army Spc. Ronald A. Gray, arrived in April 1988. He was convicted of double murder and court-martialed at Ft. Bragg. The last military execution was 44 years ago.