FORT HOOD, Texas -- Lt. Col. Kris Poppe walked into an Army courtroom Thursday morning to find out whether his team would be allowed to step down as standby defense counsel for the accused Fort Hood shooter.
Army Maj. Nidal Hasan has admitted to the shootings that killed 13 people on Fort Hood on November 5, 2009. Hasan is representing himself, but Poppe argued Wednesday he's actively seeking the death penalty. Judge Col. Tara Osborn recessed proceedings for an entire day after Poppe requested his team either be removed from their position as essentially procedural assistants or be allowed to take over Hasan's defense.
In a tense exchange followed Osborn's decision to dismiss the request Thursday morning, Poppe called the ruling "morally repugnant" and vowed to appeal the ruling. Osborn consequently ordered Poppe's team to continue to perform their assignment, whether they agree with Hasan's strategy or not.
"I think he believes that Hasan is taking a position inconsistent with their ethical obligation to prevent him from getting the death penalty," explained former judge advocate Richard Rosen, who now teaches law at Texas Tech University and has been observing the court martial proceedings.
"I know he feels passionately about it," Rosen said of Poppe. "But he's been given an order by the court to perform these duties. He's a solider. He's an officer. He's bound to follow those orders unless they're patently illegal."
So far this week more than two dozen witnesses have testified. The courtroom sketches Thursday painted a mute picture of a day of often graphic and emotional accounts, as survivors relived the brutal events of that afternoon in vivid detail.
While news images of the outside have broadcast around the world, witnesses Thursday spoke of gun smoke so thick it blocked out the light inside the medical building where the attack began. They described scenes of survivors, dead and dying covered in blood and scattered throughout the building.
In charge of the medical building that day, Sgt. First Class Maria Guerra described hearing gunshots shortly after 1:00 p.m. and recalled shouting at her civilian and military staff to "get the [expletive] down!" Guerra said she watched the shooter through a crack in the door, eventually bracing her body against the door and a desk in order to protect her staff.
Her detailed account included overhearing calls to rush the shooter while he was reloading. One man approached the shooter with a chair held over his head while two more charged from another direction, but Guerra said Hasan was able to reload quickly enough to fatally shoot at least two of the onrushers.
Wearing a beard and regulation camouflaged Army Combat Uniform, Hasan remained silent through most of the day's testimony and refrained from cross examining witnesses. He briefly objected after Guerra recounted hearing Hasan kill pregnant Pvt. Francheska Velez. Guerra described hearing gunshots silence a woman screaming, "Please don't! My baby!" Hasan asked the judge to remind Guerra she was under oath, but did not elaborate on his objection.
At times emotional, Guerra tearfully told of how she used a black marker to write the letter "D," along with the time of death, on the foreheads of the deceased in order to direct her medical staff towards those who could be saved. When asked to identify the shooter, Guerra angrily extended her arm to point at Hasan. She replied in slow, deliberate words, "That person sitting right there."
"I think this is a case about sentencing and not about findings. It's all whether he gets life or death," Rosen told media.
"He'll try to explain why he did what he did, and of course his reasoning in this case I think is fallacious: That he was trying to help the enemy or he had switched sides in the War on Terror, or he would argue evidence in mitigation that even though I did all of this, I nevertheless was a good soldier," Rosen offered. "That's kind of like saying, 'Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?' There's not much he can do I think to help himself in this case."
Most of Thursday's testimony shared a common thread, which was pointed out during an afternoon media conference by Chris Haug with III Corps and Fort Hood Public Affairs.
"Nearly all the witnesses who testified rendered aid and tried to save the lives of the soldiers in the readiness processing center that day," said Haug. "Their actions likely saved many lives."
Now it's Hasan's life that hangs in the balance.