Courtesy of the Chen family
Pvt. Danny Chen, left, with his mother, Su Zhen Chen, at his graduation from basic training.
The first soldier to face legal proceedings in the death of a Chinese-American GI believed to have committed suicide in Afghanistan after allegedly being hazed by his fellow troops may not face the toughest charge the Army had sought of involuntary manslaughter.
The Article 32 hearing for Spc. Ryan Offutt, a 32-year old infantryman from Greenville, Penn., into the death of Pvt. Danny Chen, finished Sunday, Sgt. 1st Class Alan G. Davis, an Army spokesman, said in an email.
The investigating officer recommended forwarding all charges to court-martial, except for the manslaughter charge, Davis said, later noting that the charge was not dropped but the officer "recommended not moving forward" on it "because he believed that insufficient evidence was presented at the hearing to justify" proceeding with it.
Eight soldiers, including Offutt, have been charged in connection with the death of Chen, 19, who died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound on Oct. 3. Five of them were charged with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide, thought to be the first time such charges have been brought in this type of case, according to experts on hazing and on the military legal system.
The Article 32 hearings, which will determine whether there was enough evidence for a court-martial against the men, will run through about Feb. 20 at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan. The charges against Offutt that the investigating officer recommended be forwarded to court-martial include maltreatment, assault consummated by battery, reckless endangerment and negligent homicide.
The maximum punishment for involuntary manslaughter is 10 years and a dishonorable discharge, while negligent homicide is a dishonorable discharge and three years.
Grover Baxley, a former member of the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps, noted that the investigating officer's recommendation was "just that - a recommendation."
"The Convening Authority can follow or ignore that advice, in whole or in part, as he or she decides. As a result, you may still see the government refer all the charges, including the manslaughter charge, to a court-martial," Baxley wrote in an e-mail. "Alternatively, even though the Investigating Officer recommended going forward on the majority of the charges, the Convening Authority could still drop all the charges at this point, though I don't think that's likely."
Asian-American advocates and the family told Army officials during a meeting in early January that they did not want the proceedings to take place overseas, citing the need for transparency and access, and have said the toughest charges should not be dropped.
“While the negligent homicide charge is recommended, we are extremely disappointed that the manslaughter charge is not," Elizabeth OuYang, New York branch president of OCA, a national civil rights organization serving Asian Pacific Americans, said in a statement. "The family and the community are not able to see what is happening in these hearings taking place in Afghanistan - the Army has the ability to and should televise these hearings."
The commander of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division will consider the recommendations of the investigating officer in determining whether to forward the charges against Offutt to the Army's Regional Command-South commander for final disposition, Davis said.
Chen was found dead at a guard tower with his rifle lying next to him at Combat Outpost Palace in the Panjwa'i district of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan.
According to investigators from the Regional Command-South, OuYang said, almost immediately after he arrived in mid-August, Chen, the only Chinese-American in his platoon, was required to do exercises that within a few days crossed over to alleged abuse. Some of it was inflicted by one soldier and some by a group of them, the investigators said.
Investigators found evidence that the platoon sergeant and the platoon leader -- the platoon's top two leaders -- were aware of an attack on Chen on Sept. 27 and chose not to report it, OuYang said.
The Army's Criminal Investigation Command said Monday that its investigation into Chen's death was not complete.
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