Fort Hood testimony: Weeks before rampage, Hasan took target practice

FORT HOOD, Texas — Maj. Nidal Hasan seemed ignorant about handguns but sought "the most technologically advanced" available when he bought the semi-automatic pistol and armor-piercing ammunition he used months later to slaughter soldiers, witnesses testified Thursday.

And weeks before the attack, the Army psychiatrist bought a membership at a shooting range, took a concealed handgun course and sought coaching on hitting human targets from 100 yards away.

The eighth and final day of the prosecution's presentation in Hasan's Article 32 hearing focused on evidence intended to show that the gunman began preparing and practicing months before the Nov. 5 massacre. Such evidence of prior planning could be key if Army officials decide to seek the death penalty.

Defense lawyers have signaled that they will try to raise far broader questions about whether the Army and U.S. intelligence agencies knew that Hasan had long been a potential threat _ and that they should have done more to prevent the attack. If Hasan were convicted, such a strategy could strengthen a defense argument that he should be sentenced to life in prison.

In Thursday's testimony, a firearms instructor recounted how Hasan practiced repeatedly at Stan's Shooting Range east of Fort Hood last October. The instructor, John Choats, also testified that Hasan once sought help in long-distance shooting at targets shaped like human silhouettes.

After an afternoon of coaching, Choats recalled, Hasan's shooting progressed from erratic to a tight pattern routinely hitting each target's chest and head.

Fifteen days after Hasan reported to the Central Texas post, former gun salesman Fredrick Brannon testified, the Army psychiatrist walked into the area's largest gun store, Guns Galore. He drew attention by asking which handgun in the store was "the most high-tech."

"The manager, after a little head scratching, came up with the FN 5.7 pistol," Brannon said.

Spc. William Gilbert was browsing at the store and spent nearly an hour talking to Hasan. He testified on Thursday that he was asked to tell Hasan about the weapon because he owned a Herstal FN 5.7.

Gilbert said he "tried to kind of feel (Hasan) out" about what he would do with a handgun. Hasan was vague, Gilbert recalled, saying that he wanted something high-tech with the biggest magazine possible. "He did not know what he was looking for," Gilbert said. "He did not know about handguns."

Gilbert explained that the FN had a 20-round magazine capable of being fitted with extenders to hold 30 bullets. The gun was light and "very, very easy to fire with one hand," he recalled telling the major, "like shooting a .22."

He also explained that one of the weapon's three types of ammunition, the 55192 round, had such penetrating capabilities that authorities ordered it off the market after existing stocks were sold. Gilbert said he told Hasan that the round was thought to be able to penetrate Kevlar armor and expand on hitting flesh, "basically liquefying anything ... in that area."

Brannon testified that Hasan left that day, saying that he had to look up the weapon. The next day, Aug. 1, 2007, he bought the gun, an expensive laser sight, several magazine extenders and boxes of the armor-piercing ammo.

That, too, was odd, Brannon recalled. Hasan took out a cell phone and videotaped the manager's demonstration of how to load the new pistol, remove its magazine and break it down for cleaning. Brannon said he'd never seen any other customer make such a videotape. Hasan said that "he wanted to review it later."

The grainy cell-phone video was played in court on Thursday. The gun, a set of hands and fluorescent-lit gun display cases are all that is visible. The store manager's cheerful twang can be heard talking about the weapon, and a slightly accented male voice occasionally responds. At one point, the accented voice can be heard saying that the only weapon he'd ever broken down was an M-16.

Brannon said Hasan reappeared every week or two to buy more magazines, magazine extenders and four or five boxes of ammo _ usually the penetrating 55192 rounds.

Hasan is charged with 13 counts of murder and 32 counts of attempted capital murder.

Fifty-six witnesses called by Army prosecutors have detailed how Hasan attacked a crowded soldier readiness center. Survivors of the attack recounted thinking that a drill was under way that day when Hasan stood up near the entrance of Building 42003 and screamed, "Allahu akbar," the Arabic-language Islamic exhortation meaning "God is great." He then opened fire on a 45-seat waiting area filled with soldiers who were completing medical paperwork and checkups for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 10-minute slaughter ended when two civilian police officers engaged Hasan in a gun battle. He was shot and left paralyzed from the chest down. Hasan still had 177 live rounds when he was wounded, and 214 expended shells were found in and around building 42003.

After the prosecution rested its case, defense lawyers asked to recess the Article 32 hearing until Nov. 15. They said the delay was needed to give their forensic psychologist time to evaluate Hasan.

Last month, Hasan refused to be interviewed by a military psychological board. Hasan's lead defense lawyer, John Galligan, said the prosecution's request for interview was inappropriate because authorities overseeing the case had already agreed to delay the Army's mental review until the Article 32 hearing ended.

Also Thursday, the defense lawyers learned that U.S. intelligence officials have blocked their request for a report on what intelligence agencies might have known about Hasan before to the attack.

Lead prosecutor Col. Mike Mulligan told the court that the director of defense intelligence notified him last week that the White House intelligence review was classified and would not be released.