Alma Nemelka said her nephew was the first to die. He was standing at the rear of the Soldier Readiness Center at Ft. Hood, Texas, when an Army officer burst in shouting, “Allahu akbar!” Pfc. Aaron Thomas Nemelka, 19 and soon to be deployed to the Middle East, was shot in the head.
On Tuesday, the man accused of killing Nemelka and 12 others, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan of the Army Medical Corps, will appear for his first broad military hearing into the November attack. Hasan, a U.S.-born Muslim and Army psychiatrist, was shot during the incident and is paralyzed from the waist down.
The hearing, formally called an Article 32 proceeding, is expected to span four to six weeks. Akin to a grand jury hearing but open to the public, it is designed to help the top Army commander at Ft. Hood determine whether there is enough evidence to court-martial Hasan, 40, who could face a death sentence.
But nearly a year after the shootings rocked the army base in central Texas and ignited outrage in Washington, fundamental questions linger. Was Hasan another “workplace” violent offender? Or was he a radicalized extremist whom the military should have removed from its ranks?
More significant, was he a tool of radical Islamic leaders abroad who reportedly were in contact with him and spurred him on, and who immediately applauded the shootings?
Here in Washington, the Senate Homeland Security Committee is close to wrapping up its investigation into failures in the military and federal law enforcement that allowed the shooter to slip through the system.
After initially issuing subpoenas for information, the committee has held hours of private briefings with military investigators and FBI agents to piece together Hasan’s military career and examine what the Army and law enforcement knew, or should have known, about his intentions.
The panel’s report, targeted for release in the midst of the Ft. Hood legal hearing, is expected to call for major changes in the way the Department of Defense polices its own.
“Our investigation into whether our government could have done anything to prevent the Ft. Hood murders, based on what was known about Hasan, has been difficult but it is coming to an end,” committee Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said. The final report, he said, “will reveal new information.”
In 2001, Hasan attended a mosque in the Falls Church, Va., area, where the imam was U.S.-born Anwar Awlaki — who has been targeted for death by the U.S. and is believed to be in Yemen. In the months before the Ft. Hood shooting, Hasan reportedly sent Awlaki more than a dozen e-mails, some asking when jihad was appropriate.
“I can’t wait to join you,” he allegedly told Awlaki in those e-mails.
U.S. authorities intercepted the e-mails but reportedly considered the correspondence part of Hasan’s research on post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Hasan also was closely reading Awlaki’s writings on the Internet. In one posting, Awlaki blogged about the need to fight “government armies in the Muslim world,” and proclaimed, “Blessed are those who fight against” American soldiers.
After the shootings, Awlaki praised Hasan. “Nidal Hasan is a hero,” he said. “He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.”
Hasan spent several days in a coma after being wounded during the Nov. 5 incident. He was hospitalized at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, then taken to a specially built, $400,000 jail cell in Bell County near Ft. Hood. There, he has been preparing for the Article 32 hearing, where he is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder.
With scores of witnesses prepared to identify Hasan as the shooter, his lawyer, retired Army Col. John Galligan, faces a difficult task. Galligan declined to outline what defense he might use, but noted that he is not required to put on any evidence or testimony. But the last 10 days of the hearing have been set aside for a defense if he chooses to mount one.
Last week, Galligan objected to a mental exam for Hasan, saying it should occur after the Article 32 hearing. The attorney also objected to the composition of the three-person “sanity board.” But the Associated Press reported that Col. Morgan Lamb, a Ft. Hood brigade commander overseeing Hasan’s case, ordered that the evaluation be done before the hearing.
Hasan has spent much of his time learning how to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He still receives an Army paycheck because he remains innocent until proven guilty, but his local bank refuses to accept his money. For now, Galligan is holding onto the checks.
Galligan has asked for more time to prepare Hasan’s defense but cannot get the Army to postpone the hearing. He said the Pentagon has withheld key documents, including internal records showing that they were aware of Hasan’s behavior and activities. And, he said, the Army is intent on convicting Hasan at any cost.
“He’s not charged with any terrorism offenses, but that’s how he’s being displayed,” said Galligan, who suggested Hasan may have been under the spell of others. “I’ve never seen a man railroaded like this guy.”
The families of his victims disagree.
“There is no way I think this man is insane,” said Sheryll Pearson of Bolingbrook, Ill. Her son Pfc. Michael Pearson, 22, was also killed that day. “He had a plan, and he carried it out. That is not insanity.”
In West Jordan, Utah, Alma Nemelka is watching the case closely and hoping for the death penalty.
“He knew what he was doing — he wasn’t crazy,” she said. “It was purely premeditated the way he walked in the door and my nephew was the first one to get shot.”