The sentencing phase begins today in the court-martial of Maj. Nidal Hasan. (AP)
FORT HOOD, TEXAS — Victims and family members of those killed in the Fort Hood shooting massacre testified Monday about the heartbreaking emotional and physical pain they continue to endure nearly four years since the day 13 people were killed and 31 wounded.
Speaking at the sentencing phase of Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist found guilty Friday of the November 2009 killing rampage, Staff Sgt. Patrick Zeigler, wounded in the head, shoulder, arm and hip, said he’s left with permanent brain injuries that will force him to take a medical discharge.
“That day, I had emergency brain surgery on right side of my head, which removed approximately 20 percent of my brain. I was expected to die or remain in a vegetative state the rest of my life,” he told prosecutors.
Zeigler said he was hospitalized for 11 months during which he had 10 additional procedures on his head. He has the cognitive abilities of a high school student and said it is unclear whether he can ever hold a job. He cannot drive and is partially paralyzed.
Hasan faces death by lethal injection or life in prison following Friday’s verdict of guilty on all counts of premeditated murder and attempted murder. Seven witnesses are scheduled to testify Tuesday morning when the hearing resumes.
Prosecutors asked each of the witnesses to describe the events of Nov. 5, 2009, and to explain how the murder of loved ones has impacted their lives.
Jennifer Hunt, of Noble, Okla., became a widow that day when her husband of 2 ½ months, Spc. Jason Hunt, was killed at age 22. Hunt said her daughters have “taken it pretty well for as young as they are. Me, on the other hand, I pretty much lost my mind for a while. I got suicidal. I had two suicide attempts.”
Angela Rivera told of how she was notified that her husband, Maj. Libardo Eduardo Caraveo, was killed just a day after arriving at Fort Hood preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.
“It was 5:25 in the morning when I heard the doorbell and I knew,” she said, choking back tears. “I could see the two guys standing in uniform. All I could say was ‘I knew it.’ I knew he was dead. As they stood in the living room, I kept saying ‘I knew it.’ I knew it because he did not call me back and he always did.”
Caraveo, 52, was a clinical psychologist and the father of five, including three at home ages 14, 11 and 2. She told of how her oldest daughter became suicidal, her younger daughter left for a year to live with her biological father and her youngest — a son with Caraveo — who every time they passed the airport would say “Are we going to pick up daddy now?”
“I would just cry because I did not know how to tell him his daddy was not coming back,” she said. “I couldn’t do it for awhile — until I finally sought help from a therapist. Through play therapy, she helped me tell John Paul that his daddy was dead and could not come back.”
Rivera said she kept her husband’s cellphone activated until just three weeks ago.
“My only comfort was to call his cellphone and hear his voice,” Rivera said. “For almost four years, I kept his cellphone on. Some of his family members would also call to get comfort just by listening to his voice.”
“That man did not just kill 13 that day. He killed 15. He killed my grandson and he killed me that day,” Juan Velez, father of Pvt. Francheska Velez, said through an interpreter. His daughter, 21, of Chicago, was pregnant and preparing to return home after deployment to Iraq.
Earlier, Judge Tara Osborn asked Hasan a series of questions to make sure he understood the repercussions of continuing to represent himself in the punishment phase of his trial.
“Do you understand this is the stage of the trial which will decide whether you should live or you should die? Do you understand you are staking your life on the decisions you make? I think it is unwise for you to represent yourself, but you are making that choice,” Osborn said just moments after convening the sentencing phase this morning.
Hasan said he understood, often saying “Yes, Ma’am.”
She also asked him about any medications he was taking. He said Tylenol and ibuprofen.
Jurors must agree to the death penalty before Hasan could be sent to the military’s death row. No American soldier has been executed in 50 years. Such sentences require automatic appeals that often take years to resolve. If jurors do not agree on the death penalty, the 42-year-old Virginia-born Muslim could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Hasan admitted to the shootings, which he said were in the name of jihad. He did not call witnesses or testify in the 17-day trial. Prosecutors called 89 witnesses who described how Hasan fired at fellow soldiers at a medical processing building where they were awaiting final clearance before deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. Hasan reloaded his semiautomatic handgun with high-capacity magazines several times, firing 146 rounds.
Hasan, who represented himself, was mostly passive throughout the trial, cross-examining only three witnesses, calling none himself and opting not to make a closing statement. From his opening statement Aug. 6, he admitted to being the gunman and pledged his allegiance to the mujahideen, or holy warriors.
Through media leaks and statements to the judge, Hasan signaled that he believed the attack was justified as a way to protect Islamic and Taliban leaders from U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In closing arguments Thursday, military prosecutors painted a picture of Hasan as a disgruntled and radicalized Muslim who became increasingly incensed at America’s wars abroad and his own pending deployment to Afghanistan.
Through witness testimony, 911 calls and FBI videos, prosecutors recounted how Hasan purchased the murder weapon months before the shooting, spent weeks training to shoot at silhouette targets at a local shooting range and planned the attack inside busy Building 42003, where soldiers gathered for final medical clearance before deploying.
“The accused went out that day to kill as many soldiers as he could ... or anybody else who tried to stop him,” prosecutor Col. Steve Henricks said.
Several things pointed to a premeditated act, including paper towels Hasan placed between the 16 loaded high-capacity magazines he carried in his pants cargo pockets to keep them from clanking together and how he carried out the attack on the same day members of his unit were inside the building, Henricks said.
“The accused, without a doubt, held a premeditated design to kill,” he said.
The U.S. military carried out its last execution on 1961, with the hanging of Army Pvt. John A. Bennett. He was convicted in 1955 of the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old Austrian girl.
Contributing: Rick Jervis, Gary Strauss and Doug Stanglin