FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -- Defense attorneys argued as an army officer's court martial opened Tuesday that a private found dead in Afghanistan killed himself amid the stress of strained family ties, not because of alleged ethnic hazing.
Sgt. Adam Holcomb of Youngstown is the first of eight men facing prosecution in connection with last October's death of Pvt. Danny Chen, 19. Sergeant Holcomb faces several charges, the most serious of which is negligent homicide. If convicted on all charges, he faces nearly 18 years in prison.
Military officials have said the private shot himself in Afghanistan after weeks of emotional and physical abuse that constituted hazing.
But defense attorneys argued in opening statements that Private Chen told fellow soldiers he had been disowned for joining the military, which they said was the cause of his stress. Sergeant Holcomb's attorneys said when the trial opened that the sergeant didn't cause Private Chen's death.
"There's one and only one person responsible for the death of private Chen," said defense attorney Capt. Dennis Hernon. "That person is Danny Chen."
Private Chen's relationship with his family was a focal point Tuesday. Su Zhen Chen testified that she had had a good relationship with her son and kept in touch with him during his deployment.
"He's my only son," Private Chen said in between sobs. "Why would I disown my only son?"
Prosecutors argued that Sergeant Holcomb had a history of using hate speech and allegedly dragged Private Chen across rocky ground at one point in Afghanistan.
For months, beginning in training, soldiers in his platoon peppered him with racial insults such as "Jackie Chen" and "Dragon Lady," his family has told authorities. The day he died, they said, he was forced to crawl 100 yards across gravel carrying his equipment while soldiers threw rocks at him.
Private Chen had been deployed for two months when he was found dead in a guardhouse. Attorneys said he shot himself in the head.
Besides Sergeant Holcomb, four soldiers are charged with negligent homicide. The judge's decision in the sergeant's case could be an indicator for the other soldiers.
Private Chen was a member of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, but was under the command of a Fort Bragg general in Afghanistan.
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