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Execution uncertain in grenade murders

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Relatives of the two servicemen killed in Sergeant Hasan Akbar's grenade and rifle attack said yesterday that he deserved the death sentence given to him by a military jury. But specialists in military law say it is hardly a certainty the execution will ever happen.

The military has not executed one of its own since 1961, while states have put scores of civilian killers to their deaths. Specialists say the key difference in military justice is the role of the president, who unlike a governor, must take an active role in signing off when a service member gets the ultimate punishment.

''It is unique to the military justice system that there has to be an affirmative approval by the president of the United States," said Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington. ''Clearly, there's no rush to judgment."

Currently, five people are on military death row, three whose cases are in the appeals process and two who are awaiting action from the president.

The last time there was a military execution was 44 years ago, when President Kennedy signed off on the hanging of Army Private First Class John A. Bennett for the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old Austrian girl.

A military appeals court overturned the previous military death sentence, given to Sergeant William Kreutzer for killing an officer and wounding 18 other soldiers when he fired on a formation of 1,300 troops at Fort Bragg in 1995.

Akbar was sentenced to die Thursday for killing Captain Chris Seifert, 27, and Air Force Major Gregory Stone, 40, in a March 2003 attack on the 101st Airborne Division in Kuwait in the early days of the Iraq war.

Prosecutors said Akbar launched the attack because he was concerned about US troops killing fellow Muslims in the Iraq war.

Defense lawyers argued Akbar was too mentally ill to plan the attack, but they never disputed he was the one who threw grenades into troop tents and fired on soldiers in the ensuing chaos.

A 15-member military panel deliberated seven hours before returning with a sentence of death, which these days is administered by lethal injection.

While the 34-year-old Akbar sits on the military's death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., his punishment still could be years away. He is afforded automatic appeals to two military courts and can appeal to the US Supreme Court.

But even if a military death sentence clears all the appeals, it then must go to the president.

Scott Silliman, a former Air Force lawyer and director of Duke's Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security, said there appears to be strong pressure for presidents not to approve military executions.

''The president, regardless of his political party, senses that to approve the execution of a member of the military is almost to make a political statement," Silliman said.

''There is more benefit than risk in not approving it."

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