Soldier Gets 6 Months in Hazing Suicide Case

Pvt. Danny Chen

A military judge sentenced Spc. Ryan J. Offutt to six months in prison for his role in the hazing and maltreatment that drove Pvt. Danny Chen to suicide last fall.

Offutt pleaded guilty Monday as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors.

He described his actions toward Chen as "wrong," "cruel" and "abusive."

Chen, 19, of New York, shot himself in a guard tower at a small outpost in Afghanistan on Oct. 3.

Army officials have said Chen killed himself following weeks of racially tinged abuse and torment at the hands of fellow soldiers.

In an unsworn statement, Offutt apologized to the Chen family.

"Instead of doing the right thing and standing up for him, I joined the people who weren't treating him right," he said. "I know it was wrong. No soldier deserves that kind of treatment."

Offutt, 32, of Greenville, Pa., was the second of eight Fort Wainwright, Alaska, soldiers to be tried in Chen's death.

All but one of the trials are being held on Fort Bragg.

In addition to his time in prison, Offutt also will be demoted to private and given a bad conduct discharge, which makes him ineligible for many military benefits.

Offutt agreed to plead guilty to hazing and two specifications of maltreatment in exchange for prosecutors dropping charges that included assault and negligent homicide.

His lawyers proposed the agreement Aug. 7, according to court documents. It was approved Friday.

Offutt also agreed to testify at the remaining courts-martial connected to Chen's death.

Before entering into the agreement, Offutt agreed to be tried without a jury.

Under military law, he would have received whichever sentence was lower between the plea agreement and that decided by the military judge, Col. Michael Hargis.

Hargis, who was unaware of the specifics of the plea agreement, sentenced Offutt to the maximum allowed under that deal.

Offutt's sentence came more than a week after another soldier, Sgt. Adam Holcomb, received a sentence that was seen as too lenient by the Chen family and many of their supporters.

Elizabeth OuYang, president of the Organization of Chinese-Americans New York, said Offutt's sentence brought the first bit of closure for the Chen family.

"From October of 2011 until today, this family has lived in hell," she said. "Today brings us some measure of justice."

Holcomb was convicted of mistreating Chen but was acquitted of causing his death and was sentenced to 30 days in prison, the loss of one rank and the forfeiture of more than $1,100 in pay.

Activists said they were outraged by Holcomb's sentence.

The trials are being heard before a new judge and, for Offutt's trial, there also was a change in prosecutors.

Offutt's lawyers painted a picture of a remorseful soldier who accepted his mistakes.

But they also asked for leniency, citing a traumatic brain injury that they argued was not sufficiently treated.

Offutt's lawyers asked Hargis to sentence their client to the loss of one rank, forfeiture of $1,500 and 60 days of hard labor without confinement.

Offutt said he mistreated Chen, in part, because that's how Chen was treated by soldiers he looked up to and respected.

Offutt admitted to calling Chen derogatory names, excessively punishing him and throwing rocks and water bottles at him just hours before Chen committed suicide.

One of his lawyers, Capt. Matt Jones, said the case was tragic and said Chen's chain of command also is to blame for his death.

He said soldiers at Combat Outpost Palace devolved into a "Lord of the Flies" situation, a reference to a popular young adult novel where a civilization of children turns savage.

"Spc. Offutt has made mistakes. He's also learned from those mistakes," he said.

Throughout Monday afternoon, soldiers in Chen's unit described Offutt's behavior toward Chen while friends and family of Offutt testified about his career before the incident.

They described Offutt as a good guy who didn't show any signs of racism. But they said he changed after he returned from Afghanistan for a rest and relaxation break in July 2011. They said he was more irritable and more impatient.

Offutt came from a poor family in Pennsylvania. He dropped out of high school because he had poor grades, and he originally could not get into the military, according to testimony. Offutt couldn't pass the entry exam for the Army or the Navy, but he made it into the National Guard and switched to active duty, according to testimony.

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Army Afghanistan