The Army's highest legal branch appointed a new judge to preside over the case of the Fort Hood shooting suspect, indicating the court-martial is on track to move forward after lengthy delays.
U.S. Army Col. Tara Osborn was named Tuesday to head the case of Maj. Nidal Hasan, who faces the death penalty if convicted in the 2009 shootings that killed 13 and wounded more than two dozen on the Texas Army post.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces on Monday ousted the previous judge, Col. Gregory Gross, saying he appeared biased against Hasan. The court also tossed out Gross' order to have Hasan's beard forcibly shaved before his court-martial, though it didn't rule on whether the order violated his religious rights as he claimed.
While in custody this spring, Hasan started growing a beard that he says is an expression of his Islamic faith. Gross had sided with prosecutors who say the beard violates Army grooming standards and could confuse witnesses.
The ruling Monday by the military's highest court said the command, not a judge, is responsible for enforcing grooming standards, which means another judge isn't likely to order Hasan to shave, some military law experts said.
"This ruling will have a chilling effect on the future judge because he or she ... will not pursue this beard issue any longer, and the appeals court still hasn't answered the key question of whether Hasan has to comply with military regulations and shave like every other military officer," said Jeff Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio. The retired military attorney is not involved in Hasan's case. "But on the flip side, the jury is going to see him in a full beard and may think he is motivated by radical Islamic beliefs. That's what prosecutors and the judge (Gross) were trying to prevent."
The case had been on hold since Hasan appealed Gross' order a few days before the trial was to start in August. Gross previously delayed Hasan's trial from March to June and then to August.
Army spokesman Maj. S. Justin Platt said he didn't know when Osborn would arrive at Fort Hood. It's unclear when hearings in the case will resume.
Last year, Osborn presided in a death-penalty case, the court-martial of an Army sergeant based at Fort Stewart, Ga.
Sgt. Joseph Bozicevich, of Minneapolis, was sentenced to life in a military prison without parole for shooting and killing his infantry squad leader and another U.S. soldier in Iraq after they criticized him for poor performance. Bozicevich was spared a death sentence because the jury's decision to convict him of premeditated murder was not unanimous, which removed the death penalty as an option.