The military judge hearing the case of the U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 has been removed, officials said.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces Monday removed Col. Gregory Gross, saying he showed an "appearance of bias" in the case against Maj. Nidal Hasan, the San Antonio Express-News reported Tuesday.
The court issued its ruling on a disputed order requiring Hasan to shave his beard, which he grew in violation of Army grooming standards.
"I'm kind of at a loss for words," Jeffrey Addicott, head of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, told the Express-News. "I think that's one thing nobody would have anticipated, that the [court] would have taken such an extreme measure given the fact that the judge was only attempting to comply with military regulations regarding grooming standards."
Hasan is charged in the Nov. 5, 2009, shooting spree in which 13 people died and 32 were wounded. He began growing the beard during the summer, leading to Gross fining him $1,000 on six occasions.
Hasan, paralyzed from the chest down after being shot by post police, said he grew the beard because of his Muslim faith, arguing that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act allowed him to have it. Army regulations permit sideburns and mustaches.
Among other things, prosecutors argued Gross had a right to maintain the courtroom decorum and if Hasan had a beard at trial, it would have offended soldiers and undermined morale, the Express-News said.
In its ruling, the appeals court said Hasan's command was responsible for enforcing grooming standards, not the judge. While Gross could control his courtroom, the evidence wasn't strong enough Hasan's beard "materially interfered with the proceedings."
Gross' order "to remove [Hasan] from the courtroom, the contempt citation and the decision to order [Hasan's] forcible shaving in the absence of any command action to do the same could lead an objective observer to conclude that the military judge was not impartial towards appellant," the ruling said, noting Gross and relatives were at Fort Hood on the day of the shooting.
A Fort Hood spokesman said the court's opinion was being reviewed.
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