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Soldiers may not face most serious charge in GI's alleged abuse death

Army Pvt. Danny Chen.

An officer reviewing charges against eight soldiers in connection with the death of a Chinese-American Army private, who apparently took his life after being hazed and abused, has recommended dropping the most serious charge -- involuntary manslaughter.

The investigating officer recommended that seven soldiers be court-martialed on multiple charges in connection with the death of Pvt. Danny Chen, 19, who died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound on Oct. 3 in Afghanistan, the Army said Tuesday. The Article 32 hearings, which determine if there is enough evidence for a court-martial, are being held at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan.

The most recent four infantrymen to go through those hearings had been facing charges that included 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.

But involuntary manslaughter was not among the charges recommended against Staff Sgt. Andrew VanBockel, Sgts. Jeffrey Hurst and Adam Holcomb and Spc. Thomas Curtis -- mirroring the outcome of the first Article 32 hearing for Spc. Ryan Offutt, which ended on Jan. 22.

"If the investigating officer determines that there was not sufficient evidence to support the elements of the charge, then the investigating officer may recommend not moving forward with that charge," said Sgt. 1st Class Alan G. Davis, an Army spokesman. 

The maximum punishment for involuntary manslaughter is 10 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge; for negligent homicide it three years imprisonment and a dishonorable discharge.

The commander of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, will consider the investigating officer's recommendations in determining whether to forward the charges to the Combined Joint Task Force-82 Commander for final disposition, Davis said.

A lawyer and former member of the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps has previously noted that the officer's recommendations were simply that -- a recommendation -- that could be accepted or ignored.

Courtesy of the Chen family

Pvt. Danny Chen, left, with his mother, Su Zhen Chen, at his graduation from basic training.

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.

Almost immediately after he arrived in mid-August, Chen, the only Chinese-American in his platoon, was required to do exercises that crossed over to alleged abuse, according to investigators from the Regional Command-South, said Elizabeth OuYang, New York branch president of OCA, a national civil rights organization serving Asian Pacific Americans.

Some of it was inflicted by one soldier and some by a group, according to OuYang, who was briefed on the investigation. Investigators also found evidence that the platoon sergeant and the platoon leader -- the top two officers in the unit -- were aware of an attack on Chen on Sept. 27 and chose not to report it, OuYang said.

The family and Chinese-American community have asked that Chen's comrades face the involuntary manslaughter charges and want the courts-martial to be held in the United States, citing the need for access, transparency and accountability. OuYang said they were disappointed with the officer not recommending the involuntary manslaughter charge.

"We have not been able to see any of the evidence in these eight pre-trials," she said. "We don’t know why we’re in the dark ... as to why the involuntary manslaughter charges was dropped. That’s why it’s imperative that we must have access to the court-martials so we can see the evidence in this case.”

The investigating officer has recommended the following charges be forwarded to court-martial:

-- For VanBockel: two counts of violation of a general regulation; three counts of dereliction of duty; two counts of maltreatment; one count of negligent homicide; and one count of reckless endangerment.

-- For Hurst: two counts violation of a general regulation; two counts of dereliction of duty; one count of maltreatment; one count of negligent homicide; and one count of reckless endangerment.

-- For Holcomb: three counts of violation of a general regulation; two counts of dereliction of duty; two counts of maltreatment; one count of assault; one count of negligent homicide; one count of reckless endangerment; and one count of communicating a threat.

-- For Curtis: two counts of violation of a general regulation; one count of dereliction of duty; six counts of maltreatment; four counts of assault; one count of negligent homicide; and one count of reckless endangerment.

-- For Lt. Daniel Schwartz, 25, of Maryland: eight counts of dereliction of duty.

-- For Offutt: two counts of violation of a lawful general regulation; four counts of maltreatment; one count of manslaughter; three counts of assault consummated by battery; one count of negligent homicide; and one count of reckless endangerment.

The investigating officer has yet to issue a court-martial recommendation for Sgt. Travis Carden, 25, of Fowler, Ind. His hearing is scheduled for April 4-5 at Kandahar Air Field, the Army said. The charges against him are: two counts of violation of a lawful general regulation;  two counts of maltreatment; one count of assault; and one count of reckless endangerment.

The Article 32 for the remaining soldier, Staff Sgt. Blaine Dugas, 35, of Texas, began Feb. 19 and is ongoing. He is charged with one count of violation of a lawful general order; two counts of dereliction of duty; and one count of mking a false official statement.

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