The nation’s highest military court has affirmed the conviction and death sentence for a University of California, Davis, graduate who admitted killing two fellow U.S. soldiers at the start of the Iraq War.
In a closely split decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces rejected claims by Los Angeles native Hasan K. Akbar that his original defense team was ineffective. Akbar argued at trial that he was mentally ill when he killed two and wounded 14 in the March 2003 attack in Kuwait.
“We conclude that if there ever was a case where a military court-martial panel would impose the death penalty, this was it,” Judge Kevin A. Ohlson wrote.
The court’s 3-2 decision leaves Akbar one of six military men to be facing execution at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Leavenworth, Kan. Though he had launched a wide-ranging challenge to his conviction and sentence, a big part of the case decided Wednesday dealt with his claim of ineffective counsel.
“With the benefit of appellate hindsight, we could dissect every move of these trial defense counsel and then impose our own views on how they could have handled certain matters differently and, perhaps, better,” Ohlson noted. “However, that is not the standard of review we are obligated to apply.”
Ohlson, a former Army paratrooper and federal prosecutor appointed to the court by President Barack Obama, observed that Akbar was “represented by two experienced military attorneys who devoted more than two years to preparing and presenting the defense in this case.”
The two dissenting judges countered that Akbar’s trial defense attorneys fell short, with specific mistakes that included providing Akbar’s 313-page diary to the court-martial panel.
“These pages included a running diatribe against Caucasians and the United States dating back twelve years, and included repeated references to (his) desire to kill American soldiers ‘for Allah’ and for ‘jihad,” Judge James E. Baker noted.
Baker, who has since retired, explained that “the defense intended the diary to reflect (Akbar’s) descent into mental illness,” but that it was “offered without adequate explanation, expert or otherwise.”
More broadly, Baker observed that the defense team had a hard time in making the case for Akbar because “the armed forces have no guidelines regarding the qualifications, training, or performance required of capital defense counsel.”
Born Mark Fidel Kools, the son of a felon and the product of broken home, Akbar was from a young age “indoctrinated in the Nation of Islam’s militant teachings,” defense attorneys recounted in a brief.
Nonetheless a top student in high school, Akbar graduated in 1997 from UC-Davis with dual degrees in aeronautical and mechanical engineering. Akbar took nine years to complete college, subsequently enlisting in the Army in 1998.
He was a sergeant assigned to the 326th Engineer Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division when his unit deployed to Kuwait. Early on the morning of March 23, 2003, as the U.S. invasion of Iraq was unfolding, Akbar threw incendiary and fragmentation grenades and fired his M-4 rifle in his solo assault on officers sleeping in several tents.
Army Capt. Christopher S. Seifert, a Pennsylvania native and intelligence officer, and Air Force Maj. Gregory L. Stone, a Boise resident and member of the Idaho Air National Guard, died in the attack.
Stone, the appeals court noted, “was killed from eighty-three shrapnel wounds.”
The Army’s subsequent investigation found evidence that Akbar had previously contemplated attacking his fellow soldiers.
“As soon as I am in Iraq, I am going to try and kill as many of them as possible,” Akbar wrote in a Feb. 4, 2003, diary entry, made public at his court-martial held at Fort Bragg, N.C.
The court-martial panel required only 2 1/2 hours to convict Akbar, a decision later upheld by the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals. Akbar’s attorneys subsequently challenged the conviction and death sentence in a massive 328-page brief submitted to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, a panel of civilians based in Washington.
“Against all odds,” Army Capt. Aaron R. Inkenbrandt and Akbar’s other appellate attorneys wrote, “Akbar seemed fated for success, until mental illness weakened the resolve that for so long repressed years of deprivation.”