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Paratrooper found guilty in death of fellow soldier

After a night of heavy drinking, Sgt. Justin A. Boyle used a martial-arts choke hold to subdue an intoxicated member of his unit, who died of brain damage. Boyle faces as many as 10 years in prison.

October 06, 2009|David Zucchino

FT. BRAGG, N.C. — An Army paratrooper was found guilty Monday of involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy for choking to death a fellow soldier during an hourlong struggle to bring the unruly private back to base after a night of heavy drinking.

Sgt. Justin Boyle, wearing a dress uniform and polished jump boots, stood at attention as a military jury sentenced him to two years in prison and a bad conduct discharge.

The victim's family had pleaded with jurors not to punish Boyle, and prosecutors had asked for a 14-month sentence.

Pfc. Luke Brown, 27, died after he led fellow soldiers in his intelligence unit on a chase through dense woods after a night of drinking at the Ugly Stick Saloon in Fayetteville, N.C.

Boyle was convicted of leading six soldiers on a mission to subdue Brown, who was choked, handcuffed and hauled to a waiting car.

The case has tested the practical boundaries of the warrior ethos of leaving no man behind. Brown's lawyers said he felt a duty to subdue Brown and bring him home after he became drunk, violent and possibly suicidal.

Prosecutors accused the defense of equating combat with a drunken night on the town.

"Brown's actions may have invited help, but they certainly did not give Sgt. Boyle license to choke that soldier to death," said the lead prosecutor, Capt. Richard Gallagher.

Prosecutors said Brown died of brain damage after Boyle used a martial arts maneuver, called a rear naked choke hold, to cut the blood flow to his brain as other soldiers held him down and punched him. They said Boyle ignored Brown's dying pleas to be released.

Brown, a powerfully built soldier who choked and punched soldiers who tried to control him, was dead by the time the soldiers returned him to their barracks at Ft. Bragg.

Boyle, 28, a Long Island native who enlisted after the Sept. 11 attacks and served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, choked back tears as he told jurors that he was trying to protect Brown.

A few feet away, his mother wept and fellow paratroopers sat in solidarity, including some of those who helped subdue Brown.

"The only thing on my mind was to get that kid back here safely," Boyle said. "I loved that kid."

Boyle's lawyers said he was following orders, delivered at regular Friday safety briefings, to "do whatever it takes" to bring fellow soldiers back to base.

Soldiers were ordered to "choke someone out if you have to" to get him back home, according to testimony.

The message was: "Knock 'em out, choke 'em out, bring 'em back. We'll deal with it in the unit," an 82nd Airborne Division warrant officer testified.

Because of the buddy system code, defense lawyers said, Boyle and his men would have faced punishment if they had left Brown alone in the woods after the drunken private blurted out, "I want to die."

"They were in an impossible position," said Boyle's lawyer, Anita Gorecki.

Brown's family agreed.

"All of us firmly believe that Sgt. Boyle and the other soldiers were just trying to help Luke that night," Brown's sister, Michelle Brown, 33, told the jury, speaking for Brown's parents and brothers.

"It is not our wish to see Sgt. Boyle go to jail or get kicked out of the Army," she said, testifying on a telephone conference call from the family's hometown of Fredericksburg, Va. She said Boyle had apologized to her.

Three other members of Boyle's 82nd Airborne Division intelligence unit face courts-martial. As Boyle did, they face up to 10 1/2 years in prison.

Citing safety briefings to justify choking a soldier makes a mockery of orders, prosecutors said. The briefings require soldiers to call superiors or military police if they have trouble getting someone home safely, they said.

Gallagher said Boyle had failed to make sure Brown was still breathing when he was loaded, unconscious, into the vehicle.

He said Brown died there, "in a virtual hog-tie," his hands bound behind him with the same plastic zip ties used on Iraqi and Afghan detainees.

Soldiers testified that they bound Brown's hands because they feared he would attack them again.

Boyle was described by his superiors as an exemplary soldier. But the intelligence analyst with a top-secret security clearance is now a felon.

He was acquitted of intimidating a witness.

Boyle said that whatever happened to him could not be worse than living with the memory of what he did to a friend.

"He was a good kid -- I didn't want to hurt him," he told the jury. "I'm going to miss that kid the rest of my life."

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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