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Danny Chen suicide: Sergeant guilty of assault but not homicide

FT. BRAGG, N.C. -- A court-martial found Army Sgt. Adam Holcomb guilty Monday of maltreatment and assault of Pvt. Danny Chen, a 19-year-old Asian American soldier who committed suicide in Afghanistan last Oct. 3.

But a panel of 10 service members found Holcomb not guilty of more serious charges of negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, communicating a threat and hazing.

Prosecutors had accused Holcomb, 30, of hounding Chen into committing suicide by subjecting him to hazing, physical abuse and ethnic slurs.

The panel’s finding is a recommendation. Under the military system, the recommendation will be delivered to the commanding general of Ft. Bragg, Lt. Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, who will decide a final verdict and punishment.

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Holcomb faces a maximum of 2½ years in military prison on the maltreatment and assault convictions. The panel could announce its recommendation for sentence later Monday.

Had Holcomb been convicted on all charges, he could have faced nearly 14 years in prison.

Earlier Monday, a military prosecutor said Chen killed himself after a sergeant and fellow soldiers demeaned and humiliated him because of his race.

“If you treat someone that bad, they are going to snap,’’ prosecutor Maj. Steve Berlin told the court.

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But in closing arguments for Holcomb, a military defense lawyer portrayed Chen as a woefully incompetent and unprepared soldier who put his platoon at risk before he killed himself over his own failures -- and because his immigrant parents had disowned him.

“This is a platoon at war, not men sitting around saying, ‘How can we get Private Chen?’’’ said military defense attorney Anthony Osborne.

Both sides outlined starkly divergent narratives of Chen’s final days as the court-martial for Holcomb, a tall, thickly built team leader, entered it sixth day.

The panel of 10 officers and senior non-commissioned officers began deliberating at 1:45 p.m. Seven votes are required for a guilty verdict.

Holcomb dragged Chen, whose body weighed just 148 pounds at autopsy, across baseball-sized gravel, bloodying his back, for failing to turn off a hot water heater at a remote combat outpost in southern Afghanistan, testimony showed. Soldiers testified that Holcomb bombarded Chen with ethnic slurs, including “Dragon Lady.”

“The accused treated him like no one should be treated,’’ Berlin told the panel, saying Holcomb singled out Chen because he was “of a different race.’’

On a video screen, Berlin projected a photo of Chen wearing his military uniform and beret. Surrounding the photo were four offensive Chinese American slurs allegedly uttered by Holcomb or other soldiers, including “Dragon Lady’’ and “Egg Roll.’’

“Look at his picture,’’ Berlin told the panel. “It’s clear he’s very different from the other soldiers.’’

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Chen arrived at the tiny base in August 2011, long after other soldiers had already formed tight bonds in a deadly combat zone.  As the only Chinese American soldier in the unit, Berlin said, Chen was instantly ostracized.

“You are different. You are the Dragon Lady,’’ Berlin said. “Your color is different. ... We’re going to emasculate you by calling you Dragon Lady.’’

A few hours after several soldiers – but not Holcomb – forced Chen to crawl on his belly while they pelted him with rocks and bottles Oct. 3, Chen shot himself under the chin with his automatic rifle inside a base guard tower.

The government said Holcomb, who shared living quarters with the young private, hazed, humiliated and hounded Chen into taking his own life. Berlin said Chen took desperate measures to get away from Holcomb, sometimes sleeping outside or in a portable toilet on Combat Outpost Palace.

“Danny Chen had nowhere to go,’’ Berlin said. “It was just him and his tormenter.’’

The defense blamed Chen himself, saying Holcomb worked to improve Chen’s poor performance as an infantryman.

“Private Chen killed Private Chen,’’ Osborne said.

Osborne said “Dragon Lady’’ and other slurs were “nicknames,’’ described by the defense during testimony as “terms of endearment.’’ Dragging Chen across the gravel was intended to instill discipline in an undermanned unit that took enemy fire almost every day.

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“We need discipline or men die,’’ Osborne said. “That was [Holcomb’s] purpose’’ in dragging Chen about 40 yards from his bunk to the water heater.

“It wasn’t to demean Private Chen,’’ he said. “It was to instill discipline in a platoon at war.’’

The defense argued that abuse alleged by prosecutors was actually “corrective training’’ approved by the military to correct soldier’s mistakes or oversights. Testimony showed that Chen, who had less training than most young soldiers in the 26-man platoon, fell asleep on guard duty, was chronically late, forgot to wear his helmet – and could not properly fire his automatic rifle.

“Private Chen was a liability to the platoon,’’ Osborne said. “That’s what this case is about – he should not have been there.’’

Osborne blamed the Army for failing to identify Chen’s shortcomings and fragile psychological state before he deployed.  And he said the military was setting a dangerous precedent by charging one soldier with responsibility for another soldier’s suicide.

Defense lawyers have said Chen’s demise began before he ever arrived in Afghanistan. Testimony showed that he failed to report for formation at a base in Alaska and curled up into the fetal position in his bunk after telling friends his parents had disowned him. At least five soldiers testified that Chen told them his parents wanted nothing to do with him.

“His joining the Army had shamed their family,’’ Osborne said.  “That seriously impacted this soldier’s decision to kill himself.’’

Holcomb was not present when Chen was pelted with rocks as he crawled to the guard tower the day he ultimately killed himself, Osborne said.

Chen’s suicide was a “a tragic loss,’’ Osborne said. He pointed across the courtroom at the defendant. “But his death,’’ he said, “was not caused by this soldier.”

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

 


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