By Kelley Shannon
FORT HOOD, Texas (Reuters) - A U.S. military judge on Wednesday set a March 2012 court martial date for a U.S. Army psychiatrist charged in a 2009 killing rampage at a Texas military base.
At a brief arraignment that lasted about 15 minutes, Major Nidal Malik Hasan declined to enter a plea before Fort Hood Chief Circuit Judge Colonel Gregory Gross. Gross granted a request by Hasan's attorneys to defer the plea to a later, unspecified date.
Gross set a trial date of March 5, 2012, for Hasan's court martial, where he could face the death penalty if unanimously convicted by a 12-member jury of U.S. military officers.
Hasan, 40, is charged in the Fort Hood shootings that killed 13 people and wounded 32 others on November 5, 2009.
Hasan appeared in the base's small courtroom in Army fatigues and a shaved head, and was wheelchair-bound after being paralyzed from the chest down by bullet wounds inflicted by civilian police officers during the shooting.
Hasan notified Gross that he had released John Galligan, the civilian attorney who has been his lead attorney in previous court appearances. Hasan will instead be represented by three military lawyers at no cost to him.
Gross asked Hasan if his decision was voluntary.
That's correct," Hasan said.
According to witnesses who testified at evidentiary hearings at Fort Hood in 2010, Hasan shouted "Allahu Akbar" -- Arabic for "God is Greatest" -- just before opening fire on a group of soldiers undergoing health checks before being deployed to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If Hasan is convicted and sentenced to death, he would be the first American soldier to be executed in a U.S. military proceeding in over 50 years, if the sentence is carried out.
Hasan would have the right to appeal any verdict delivered to several military and civilian courts -- including the U.S. Supreme Court -- a process that could take years, military justice experts said.
"Major Hasan stands a very good chance of being executed," said Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. "The government won't have any difficulty in making him the trigger man."
Military executions are rare in the United States. The last was Army Private John Bennett, who was hanged in 1961 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, after being convicted of rape and attempted murder.
The U.S. president would also have to personally approve any execution before it is carried out.
The Fort Hood incident raised concerns over the threat of "homegrown" militant attacks. U.S. officials said Hasan had exchanged e-mails with Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born al Qaeda figure based in Yemen.
Fort Hood is a major deployment point for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
(Reporting by Kelley Shannon. Editing by Peter Bohan and Cynthia Johnston)