Soldier sentenced to 3 months prison in Pvt. Danny Chen case
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer | Published: August 27, 2012
A soldier who oversaw punishment of Pvt. Danny Chen in Afghanistan will spend three months in prison for his role in hazing the Chinese-American soldier.
Spc. Thomas Porter Curtis IV, 27, of Hendersonville, Tenn., was sentenced Monday to prison and demoted to the Army's lowest rank - private - following a day-long court-martial.
Curtis pleaded guilty to hazing, two specifications of maltreatment and two specifications of assault in connection with his treatment of the 19-year-old Chen.
Prosecutors have said that Chen, who killed himself in Afghanistan last year, was driven to suicide by the mistreatment and racial taunting of his fellow soldiers.
Curtis accepted responsibility for his actions, but had hoped to avoid prison time.
His lawyers successfully lobbied for him to remain in the Army, something that irked supporters of the Chen family.
Elizabeth OuYang, president for the Organization of Chinese-Americans New York, said allowing Curtis to remain in the military puts other soldiers at risk of suffering the way Chen did.
"We are disappointed," she said following the court-martial. "(The court) has to send a signal somewhere."
Curtis pleaded guilty as part of an agreement with prosecutors.
They dropped the most serious charges that Curtis faced, including negligent homicide, in return for his pleas and an agreement to testify in related cases.
If he does, Curtis will have immunity for anything he says at trial.
Curtis apologized to Chen's family during the trial, admitting that he had gone too far in his treatment of Chen.
During the proceedings, Curtis described forcing Chen to wear a green helmet and shout instructions in Chinese for the amusement of the soldiers, grabbing Chen by his helmet and repeatedly striking him in the thigh.
Curtis said he punished Chen to humiliate him in front of his peers.
"I know now your honor that it wasn't right, that I went too far,'' Curtis told the military judge.
He said Chen was ordered by higher ranking soldiers to address his superiors by their first name, knowing that would lead to punishment for Chen.
Curtis said his actions were based on his prior service in the Marine Corps.
Curtis said racial slurs and physical punishment were normal for the Marines, in which he served for four years, but added that there was no justification for his actions.
One of Curtis' lawyers, Capt. Virginia Tinsley, said Curtis would have stopped his treatment of Chen had he known what he was doing was wrong.
She said the case represented a clash between the "old military," where similar actions may be considered part of the culture, and the "new military," with its focus on preventing hazing and mistreatment.
Prosecutors asked the judge to sentence Curtis to six to nine months in prison with a reduction in rank to private, forfeiture of pay and a bad conduct discharge. Curtis' lawyers asked for 30 days of hard labor with no demotion, forfeiture or discharge.
Courts-martial related to Chen's death are being held at Fort Bragg because the unit fell under the command of the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan.
The trials began last month, and Curtis is the fifth soldier to be sentenced in connection with Chen's death.
All of the soldiers were members of Chen's Fort Wainwright, Alaska-based unit and were serving at Combat Outpost Palace in southern Afghanistan when Chen died on Oct. 3.
Soldiers who have been court-martialed so far are:
Sgt. Adam Holcomb, who was convicted of maltreatment and sentenced to 30 days in prison, the loss of one rank and the forfeiture of more than $1,100 after a seven-day trial.
Spc. Ryan Offutt, who pleaded guilty to hazing and mistreating Chen and was sentenced to six months in prison, a demotion to private and a bad conduct discharge following a plea agreement.
Chen's platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Blaine Dugas, who was demoted one rank and sentenced to three months in prison following convictions for using alcohol in a combat zone and dereliction of duty. He will not have to serve any time in prison because of credit for 90 days in prison based on unlawful pretrial punishment.
Sgt. Travis Carden, who was demoted one rank and will forfeit two-thirds of his pay for a month following convictions of hazing and maltreating Chen by calling him racially disparaging names and ordering him to perform pushups with his mouth full of water.
Staff writer Drew Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.