By Ian Simpson
FORT BELVOIR, Virginia (Reuters) - Defense lawyers for Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood massacre suspect, told an Army appeals court on Thursday that his court martial judge had overstepped his authority in ordering him to appear clean shaven for trial.
A prosecutor, in turn, argued before the Army Court of Criminal Appeals that the court martial judge, Colonel Gregory Gross, was empowered to maintain decorum in his courtroom. Hasan is accused of shooting to death 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009.
Lieutenant Colonel Kris Poppe, a defense attorney, said Army regulations only allowed forcible shaving of inmates in military correctional facilities, not by a judge's order.
"Forcible shaving exceeds the authority of the military judge," he told the seven-judge appeals panel.
Poppe added that the defense did not dispute that soldiers should appear in court in proper uniform and that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 allowed Hasan to have a beard.
Gross, a Fort Hood judge, ordered Hasan last month to shave off his beard or be forcibly shaven, ruling that it was not covered by laws protecting religious freedom. He said Army grooming regulations banning beards overrode his religious beliefs.
Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, has said he grew the beard in line with his Islamic beliefs. He faces 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder.
Another defense lawyer, Captain Kristin McGrory, argued that Hasan's beard would not disrupt courtroom decorum. Members of the court martial panel could be instructed to ignore Hasan's appearance, she said.
But prosecutor Captain Kenneth Borgnino said that Gross's order was within his authority to maintain decorum. Hasan's refusal to appear clean-shaven in court was an inherent disruption, he said.
"This is the equivalent of the defendant coming in with a sign that says,'Eff you, judge' or 'Eff you, panel,'" he said.
Borgnino disputed Hasan's contention the beard was part of religious observance, saying Hasan had only grown it since June. A court martial that had been set for August 20 was put on hold because of the beard issue.
Hasan's lawyers also appealed contempt of court rulings by Gross.
The appeals court gave no time frame for issuing its decisions. Rulings can be appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
Police shot Hasan during his alleged rampage, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. Hasan is being held at the Bell County jail near Fort Hood and was hospitalized in late September for an undisclosed ailment.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Xavier Briand and Eric Walsh)