FORT BRAGG, N.C. – A military jury Thursday began deliberating whether a U.S. soldier should be executed for killing two officers in a grenade attack in Kuwait (search) — murders for which the defendant apologized in a brief, barely audible courtroom statement.
Sgt. Hasan Akbar (search), a Muslim convert described by prosecutors as a religious ideologue and by his attorneys as mentally ill, faced either a death sentence, life in prison without parole, or life with parole for the March 2003 attack, which also wounded 14 fellow members of the Army's 101st Airborne Division (search).
"I want to apologize for the attack that occurred. I felt that my life was in jeopardy, and I had no other options. I also want to ask you for forgiveness," Akbar told the 15-person military jury before deliberations began.
Akbar, 34, spoke for less than a minute, delivering an unsworn statement that could not be cross-examined. He spoke in such a low voice that even prosecutors sitting nearby had trouble hearing, with one lawyer even cupping his ear.
The defense then rested its case, returning it to the same jury that last week took just 21/2 hours to convict Akbar of two counts of premeditated murder and three counts of attempted premeditated murder.
Any death sentence would be the subject of an automatic appeal. Execution would be by lethal injection (search).
Prosecutors have said Akbar launched the attack at his camp — days before the soldiers were to move into Iraq — because he was concerned about U.S. troops killing fellow Muslims in the Iraq war.
Akbar is the first American since the Vietnam era to be prosecuted on charges of murdering a fellow soldier during wartime.
While the defense contends Akbar was too mentally ill to plan the attack, they have never disputed that he threw grenades into troop tents in the early morning darkness and then fired on soldiers in the ensuing chaos. Army Capt. Chris Seifert, 27, and Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone, 40, were killed.
In closing arguments of the sentencing phase, chief prosecutor Lt. Col. Michael Mulligan urged jurors to sentence Akbar to death.
"He is a hate-filled, ideologically driven murderer," the prosecutor said, adding that Akbar wrote in his diary in 1997, "My life will not be complete unless America is destroyed."
Defense attorney Maj. David Coombs told jurors that a sentence of life without parole would allow Akbar to be treated for mental illness and possibly rehabilitated.
"Death is an absolute punishment, a punishment of last resort," Coombs said.
A defense psychiatrist testified that although Akbar was legally sane and understood the consequences of his attack, he suffered from forms of paranoia and schizophrenia.
If given a death sentence, Akbar would join five others on the military's death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The last U.S. military execution was in 1961.