AUSTIN -- The slow walk to the military courtroom Monday morning marked the first steps in a slow and painful journey through the heartbreak that began with that November afternoon in 2009.
After convicting Army Maj. Nidal Hasan of 13 counts of murder and 32 counts of attempted murder in the brutal rampage on Fort Hood, a military panel will now determine his fate. On the first day of the court martial sentencing phase, a dozen witnesses took the stand.
"They were comprised of widows, parents and fellow soldiers who gave witness to the losses they and their families have suffered as a result of the shooting," Fort Hood and III Corps public affairs chief Chris Haug told media Monday.
Among those testifying was Staff Sgt. Patrick Zeigler, who suffered four gunshot wounds, including one in the head. Walking up to the witness box with great difficulty, Zeigler described how surgeons removed 20 percent of his brain, leaving him with the cognitive faculties of a high school student.
Angela Rivera, the widow of 52-year old psychiatrist and Army Maj. Eduardo Caraveo, choked back sobs as she described her horror when news of the shooting broke. After her husband's death she said one of her daughters became suicidal.
Rivera testified how she couldn't bring herself to tell their 2-year old son his father was dead. For almost four years she said she left his cell phone active so family members could hear his voice on his phone's voicemail. Last month, when the phone company lost the recording, she said her son lost his father's voice forever.
Pfc. Francheska Velez was pregnant when Hasan's bullets found her. Speaking tearfully through an interpreter, her father Juan Velez said Hasan didn't kill 13 people, but 15.
"My grandson," he said, "And me. Slowly."
Hasan displayed little emotion and requested several breaks throughout the morning's testimony, but Judge Col. Tara Osborn continued to call witnesses after a request by Hasan to break early for lunch.
"His stated theory all along was that he was just after soldiers," said South Texas College of Law professor and former judge advocate Geoffrey S. Corn. "These are the civilians who are suffering because of what he did, and he shows no apparent demonstration of remorse. One witness finishes and his main concern is, 'Can we go to lunch now? We need a break now?'"
The morning began with Osborn offering Hasan one final chance to allow his standby defense counsel to take over his defense. Calling Hasan's decision to continue to represent himself "unwise," Osborn reminded Hasan that his life depends on the decisions he will make this week.
Hasan faces either the death penalty or life in prison. In portions of a military sanity board report leaked to the media earlier, Hasan stated if he were to die by lethal injection he would "still be a martyr." In order to sentence him to do death, the government prosecution must prove Hasan's crimes were so heinous, they offset any possible explanation he may have.
"They are demonstrating with evidence, not speculation, the immense human cost of the defendant's criminal misconduct, and that's their burden," said Corn. "And they have to get the jury to vote unanimously that that aggravating evidence substantially outweighs any considerations in mitigation, and then and only then are they permitted to take the final vote, which is whether or not the accused should be put to death, and that has to be a unanimous vote."
The government is expected to call seven more witnesses before Hasan is allowed to take up his defense. Rules during the sentencing phase allow Hasan to make a statement without fear of interruption or cross examination. Many expect Hasan to use the opportunity to make his case that he was a soldier who "switched sides" during the War On Terror, and was acting to protect the lives of Taliban fighters oversees.
"I think he's been Waiting for this from the beginning," said Corn.
"If he doesn't do it, I think it cements for us the inference that he is just basically boycotting this whole process, that he doesn't care about what happens, he has no respect for the Army, he has disdain for the military justice system and he's just sitting there saying, 'Play your game. I don't care,'" explained Corn. "But I think he will make that statement, and I think ultimately, like everything else he's done, it's not going to be tactically advantageous because I don't think he's going to get up there and express remorse."