FORT BRAGG, N.C. – A military jury sentenced a soldier to death Thursday for a grenade and rifle attack on his own comrades during the opening days of the Iraq invasion, a barrage that killed two officers and that prosecutors said was driven by religious extremism.
Sgt. Hasan Akbar (search), who gave a brief, barely audible apology hours earlier, stood at attention between his lawyers as the verdict was delivered. He showed no emotion.
He could have been sentenced to life in prison with or without parole for the early morning March 2003 attack, which also wounded 14 fellow members of the Army's 101st Airborne Division (search) at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait.
The 15-person military jury, which last week took just two and a half hours to convict Akbar of premeditated murder and attempted premeditated murder, deliberated for about seven hours in the sentencing phase. After jurors reached a verdict, they voted on whether to reconsider the decision after one juror asked that they do so.
The sentence will be reviewed by a commanding officer and automatically appealed. If Akbar is executed, it would be by lethal injection.
"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 jury before it deliberated in the sentencing phase.
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.
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 (search), 27, and Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone (search), 40, were killed.
Prosecutors say 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.
"He is a hate-filled, ideologically driven murderer," chief prosecutor Lt. Col. Michael Mulligan said. He added that Akbar wrote in his diary in 1997, "My life will not be complete unless America is destroyed."
Akbar is the first American since the Vietnam era to be prosecuted on charges of murdering a fellow soldier during wartime.
"Hasan Akbar has robbed me of so many things," Tammie Eslinger, Maj. Gregory Stone's fiancee, said after the sentencing. "He stole my love, my family, my dreams and my future. But he could never steal my spirit."
Seifert's widow, Theresa, said she was satisfied with the military justice system. She called Akbar "a nonentity to me."
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.
Akbar's father, John Akbar, has said his son complained in vain to his superiors about religious and racial harassment before the attack. The defense never introduced any witnesses to testify about any such harassment.
John Akbar was not in the courtroom for the verdict. He emerged from a meeting with his son in tears and declined to comment.
If given a death sentence, Hasan Akbar would join five others on the military's death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The last U.S. military execution was in 1961.