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Danny Chen suicide: Sergeant guilty of assault but not homicide

July 30, 2012|By David Zucchino
  • U.S. Army Sgt. Adam Holcomb, right, of Youngstown, Ohio, speaks with defense attorney Capt. Dennis Hernon as they leave the Ft. Bragg Courthouse.
U.S. Army Sgt. Adam Holcomb, right, of Youngstown, Ohio, speaks with defense… (Raul R. Rubiera / The Fayetteville…)

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.

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.

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.’’

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.

"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.’’

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