Soldier convicted on lesser charge in hazing case
By STEVE DEVANE | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C./MCT | Published: November 9, 2012
A military jury on Fort Bragg reduced Jeffrey T. Hurst's rank from sergeant to specialist and sentenced him to 45 days of hard labor Friday for dereliction of duty in the Pvt. Danny Chen suicide case.
Earlier, the jury found Hurst not guilty of hazing and maltreatment.
Hurst was the sixth of eight soldiers from Chen's Alaska-based unit to face court-martial related to the 19-year-old private's suicide in Afghanistan last year. Prosecutors allege Chen, who was Chinese-American, was taunted with racial slurs and physical abuse by fellow soldiers.
The eight-member jury deliberated about four hours before reaching a verdict today. At least six jurors had to concur for a guilty verdict, said the military judge, Col. David Robertson.
The defense called several witnesses during the sentencing phase that followed the verdict, including Hurst's mother and other soldiers who testified about how Hurst was a good soldier who risked himself to help others.
The prosecution asked for the maximum sentence, which would be a reduction in rank to private, three months imprisonment and loss of two-thirds of pay for three months. The defense asked for no punishment, telling the jurors that Hurst had been through a lot during the investigation, and that a conviction was punishment enough.
Hurst gave an unsworn statement, saying he wanted to look the members of the jury in the eye and tell them Chen was never mistreated or abused. Hurst had taken the stand in his own defense earlier this week and denied hazing Chen.
He asked the jurors to consider his eight years of service and three combat tours.
Speaking to Chen's family, Hurst said their son was a "fellow soldier" who was not abandoned or mistreated.
The jury deliberated for about an hour while considering the sentence.
The eight soldiers who faced charges in the case are based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. The allegations included racial taunting and failing to stop the hazing. Five already have been punished for their treatment of Chen; two others await trial.
According to testimony, Chen arrived for duty with the unit in Afghanistan shortly after basic training, and other soldiers questioned his fitness to be in a combat zone. One soldier dragged him over rocks. Chen was punished by having to do pushups with a sandbag on his back and walk around with sandbags tied to his wrists. At one point, Chen was made to wear a green construction helmet and speak Chinese.
The prosecution and defense debated whether harsh treatment was "permissible for corrective training," intended to remedy his shortcomings and make him a better soldier.
"He was the smallest, youngest kid out there," Maj. Joshua M. Toman, the lead prosecutor, told jurors during closing statements Thursday. "They used him as their plaything."
As a leader, Hurst should have been setting the example, Toman said. Instead, the message was that "Chen was fair game," he said.
Haytham Faraj, Hurst's civilian lawyer, described the soldiers who have been tried as "heroes offered for sacrifice on a political altar." He blamed Army criminal investigators for "rushing to judgment" and called one CID agent "a liar.
"He told this hero, 'You are not worthy of being in the Army. You are a piece of (expletive),' " Faraj said.
Hurst, Chen's team leader, was the sixth of eight soldiers facing charges related to the suicide. The soldiers are from the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division in Alaska. The case is at Fort Bragg because the unit was attached in Afghanistan to the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg.
Hurst was found guilty of negligently failing to prevent Spcs. Ryan J. Offutt and Thomas P. Curtis from hazing Chen "as it was his duty to do."
The soldiers were weary and combat-fatigued from constant patrols where the odds were high that they would be shot or blown up, Faraj said.
They saw an explosion blow off a good friend's leg and witnessed a buddy hit in the face by an explosion, Faraj said. Hurst dragged a wounded soldier 400 meters to safety, he said.
Thursday, a forensic psychiatrist testified that Hurst "clearly was exhibiting symptoms" of post-traumatic stress disorder, which may have taken a toll on his some of his ability to function.
Faraj argued there was not enough evidence to show Hurst knew of or was involved in bullying. He said the prosecutor "talked about everybody but Sgt. Hurst" in his descriptions of Chen's hazing.
The maltreatment charge against Hurst was for allegations he called Chen "zipperhead" and "dragon lady."