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Defense: Suspect In Grenade Attack Has History Of Mental Illness

Posted April 11, 2005

— Fifteen Army officers and senior sergeants heard Monday that a sergeant charged with murder in Kuwait suffered from mental illness long before he entered the service.

Sgt. Hasan Akbar, 33, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted first-degree murder.

Prosecutors said in March 2003 Akbar stole grenades from a Humvee and threw them into a tent where officers were sleeping, at the same time opening fire on his fellow soldiers.

The attack killed Army Capt. Christopher Seifert, 27, and Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone, 40, and injured 14 other soldiers.

Prosecutors said they plan to show jurors three items: Akbar's confession, his diary -- which they claim show his intent -- and forensic evidence.

Defense attorney Maj. Dan Brookhart told the court-martial jury that Akbar could not have planned the attack that occurred on the eve of the Iraqi invasion. Brookhart said Akbar has suffered from mental illness for more than 15 years because of the sexual abuse of his sister by his stepfather. He said Akbar committed the attack but could not have planned it.

Several people who were injured in the grenade attack told jurors Monday about the chaos at the time of the attack.

Judging Akbar will be nine officers, with ranks from colonel to major, and six noncommissioned officers, all senior sergeants who outrank Akbar.

There are 13 men and two women. Three jurors are black, like Akbar, while eight are white, and the other four are of other racial backgrounds.

Many of the jurors said during questioning last week that they have large families; many said they have known someone with mental health issues.

Prosecutors have said Akbar confessed several times to the attack, saying he was afraid U.S. soldiers would harm fellow Muslims. Akbar's lawyers say they plan a defense of diminished capacity or insanity.

During pretrial hearings, Akbar has fallen asleep in court, apparently as a result of sleep apnea. And hearings in late March were delayed after he fought with a military police officer who was guarding him.

Akbar faces a possible death sentence, so nuances of attitude among the panelists -- all of whom said they could vote for a death penalty -- could be important as the defense works to save Akbar's life.

A sergeant who was asked about imposing the death penalty, said, "You have to show me, sir, show me all the facts that the accused did it."

Jurors also were asked whether they could impose a lesser sentence of life without parole or life with the possibility of parole -- and one potential panelist was removed after he said he could not consider a lesser punishment than death.

"Life without parole is warranted if all the facts are not there," said one juror. The Army is not identifying the jurors and ground rules for covering the trial prohibit identifying them in detail.

During two days of questioning, defense lawyers leaned toward jurors who said they had experience with mental health issues. One officer said his sister had problems after brain surgery. Others said they had dealt with soldiers who were sent for mental health evaluations, including a top sergeant who had participated in 12 cases.

"Sometimes, when events start going down a certain path, they have no control over events that follow," said a soldier whose father was a psychologist who occasionally let patients stay at his home if they were down and out.

Akbar's sleep habits have been an issue during nearly two years of pretrial hearings. After falling asleep in court several times because of apnea, he was given a machine designed to assist with his nighttime breathing.

No jurors said they suffered from apnea, but some said they sleep only four to five hours a night because of work and stress.

"The Army is stress, sir," said one juror.

The trial is taking place under tight security. Visitors to the on-post legal building are scanned with metal detectors, bomb dogs sniff equipment and a driveway behind the building is blocked to the normal flow of traffic and patrolled by a half-dozen armed military police officers.

Inside the courtroom, Akbar is under close watch after his recent scuffle with an MP.

On Friday, the defendant broke his customary silence to object to his lawyers' decision to keep one juror on the panel. Akbar complained that the man had a scowl on his face when he first came to court.

After a recess to discuss his concerns, Akbar said he understood why his lawyers had kept the man on the panel and the jury remained at 15.

Under military rules, a jury must have at least 12 members, but can have more. All votes must be unanimous. Of the original panel of 20 called Wednesday, three potential jurors were eliminated because they expressed opposition to the death penalty.

Another was sent home because he said he could not consider any punishment less than death. A fifth was removed because of his connection to a 1995 sniper attack at Fort Bragg that killed a friend.

As allowed, Akbar requested a jury with officers and enlisted personnel. All jurors must outrank the person on trial, however.

The trial is expected to last up to four weeks.

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