FORT HOOD, Texas — For the past two months, the military judge presiding over the high-profile case of the Army psychiatrist charged in the deadly 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage has said he wanted to avoid disruptions in court.
So after Maj. Nidal Hasan showed up for a June pretrial hearing wearing a beard, a violation of Army regulations, Col. Gregory Gross banned him from the courtroom until he shaves.
Now Hasan's facial hair has become a bigger disruption than anyone might have foreseen. All hearings and the murder trial, set to start next week, were put on hold Wednesday while an appeals court considers Hasan's objections to being forcibly shaved.
The delay is frustrating for many involved in the case, although some victims' relatives say they have grown accustomed to waiting for the trial to start. It's been almost three years since the shooting rampage left 13 dead and more than two dozen wounded on the Texas Army post.
"I stopped holding my breath a long time ago as far as expecting to get any closure regarding the trial," said Leila Hunt Willingham, whose brother Jason Dean "J.D." Hunt was among those killed Nov. 5, 2009.
Gross has not allowed Hasan to stay in the courtroom, saying the beard is a disruption. However, in late July Gross said he wanted Hasan in the room during the court-martial to prevent a possible appeal on the issue if he is convicted. He said Hasan would be forcibly shaved before the trial if he didn't shave the beard himself.
Hasan, an American-born Muslim, won't shave because the beard is an expression of his faith, defense attorneys have said. Hasan also has had a premonition that his death is imminent, his attorneys said.
"He does not wish to die without a beard as he believes not having a beard is a sin," one of Hasan's attorneys wrote in his appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
Hasan faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole if convicted. No military death-row inmates have been executed since 1961.
Prosecutors have said Hasan grew the beard so trial witnesses would have a hard time identifying him. They have said they doubt religion is his motive, noting he was clean-shaven at the time of the shootings.
Gross told defense attorneys at a June hearing that he disagreed with their argument that Hasan's beard didn't take away from the dignity of the proceedings.
"This is a choice that Major Hasan is making," Gross said at a June hearing.
At the start of Wednesday's hearing, Gross once again found Hasan in contempt of court and fined him $1,000 for disobeying orders to shave. Hasan then was taken to a nearby room to watch the proceedings on a closed-circuit television.
Hasan had been scheduled to enter a plea Wednesday, but the court proceedings were put on hold before he could do that.
Hasan indicated he wanted to plead guilty for religious reasons, according to a defense motion. But in ruling on the motion, Gross said he would not be able to accept a guilty plea on the 13 charges of premeditated murder because the charges carry a possible death penalty, which the government is pursuing the death penalty in Hasan's case.
Hasan, 41, also is charged with 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder.
The court-martial, scheduled to start Monday with jury selection, will be on hold until the appeals court rules on Hasan's appeal to the judge's order to being shaved. Wednesday's court order that halted the proceedings gives the judge a week to respond.
Some military law experts not involved in the case said this seems to be a defense strategy.
"The defense is trying everything to delay this case, and it's frustrating that the beard issue has gone this far," said Jeffrey Addicott, a retired military attorney who is now director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University School of Law.