Four times in the past seven years, Justin Boyle, a decorated Army sergeant from Rocky Point, followed his unit into combat. Boyle went to Iraq three times and Afghanistan once. His personnel records speak glowingly of a soldier who responded to the call of duty within days of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and performed admirably, even heroically.
Today, Boyle, 29, is serving a 2-year sentence in an Army prison at Fort Sill, Okla. On Oct. 5, 2009, a Fort Bragg, N.C., court-martial convicted Boyle of using a fatal choke hold on fellow soldier Pfc. Luke Brown in July 2008 when Brown refused to return to base after a night of hard drinking.
The conviction and sentence, unless reversed on appeal, will almost certainly wipe out an exemplary service record and result in a bad-conduct discharge.
Boyle's conviction has been sharply criticized by his own family. But Boyle has also picked up an unusual ally - Brown's family. While heartbroken over Brown's death, his family believes holding Boyle accountable for it is not fair. Brown's sister, Michelle, said her father, Brad Brown, a retired Navy diver, believes his son's death was an accident that never should have been viewed as a crime. Beyond the issues of fairness, the family says they have forgiven Boyle.
"Our family felt there was enough tragedy from that night and that we didn't want Sgt. Boyle to go to jail," Michelle Brown said. Of Boyle's trial, she said, "To be honest with you, I don't think we learned the truth. I think he [Boyle] was trying to help my brother."
Brown, 27, of Fredericksburg, Va., was a member of Boyle's military intelligence unit, and with a group of others had gone off base for a night of drinking at a Fayetteville, N.C., bar. At his sentencing, Boyle said he had tried to pacify Brown, whom others described as drunk and depressed, after he fled the bar into nearby woods and refused to return to the base. Boyle's lawyers elicited testimony from Fort Bragg soldiers that base officials had repeatedly warned soldiers headed for local bars to "do whatever it takes" but never leave behind a fellow soldier who had drunk too much.
The court-martial concluded that Boyle had recklessly choked Brown to death when he used a chokehold to restrain him.
The record of the court-martial paints a portrait of a group of experienced soldiers, all friends, who drank to excess and fought to forcibly return one of their own to his quarters on the base. In their view, they were acting out a fundamental principle of soldiering - that one of their own not be left behind. Beyond the emotion of the night Brown died, the court record, along with the autopsy report and the opinions of medical experts, also raise questions that go to the heart of the case against Boyle.
For example, the record shows that the Army's own autopsy originally did not classify the death as a homicide but called it "inconclusive," while a medical examiner hired by the defense testified that Brown died of an undiagnosed, severely enlarged heart, a condition the initial autopsy also said was a possible cause of death.
Because of military policy, Boyle is not allowed to speak to reporters. But at his sentencing, Boyle characterized the incident as a tragic accident that will haunt him.
"Keeping how I feel about this whole incident and what I've gone through matters nothing to how much I miss my friend," Boyle testified, according to a transcript of the trial. " . . . I didn't want to hurt him. I wanted to bring him back."
The night in question
The fatal encounter began on a hot and muggy North Carolina evening in July 2008 at the Ugly Stick, one of dozens of honky-tonk bars that beckon off-duty soldiers from Fort Bragg, one of the world's biggest military bases. Several soldiers attached to the 82nd Airborne Division headquarters intelligence unit had stopped at the bar, which was a 15-minute drive from the barracks.
Boyle, just back from a 10-month hitch in Afghanistan, was among them. So was Brown, a new member of the unit. In a sworn statement following the incident, Boyle told Army investigators that he had split a fifth of vodka with two friends while playing cards in the barracks earlier that Saturday night. He had more to drink - rounds of whiskey and Coke - after arriving at the Ugly Stick around 11 p.m.
Brown, a 250-pound former athlete who had recently been enrolled in an Army alcohol rehab program, had so much to drink that his blood alcohol concentration was nearly three times the legal limit, a blood test would later show. He had been drinking throughout the evening, several witnesses said.
By closing time Brown had become aggressive. Having loudly complained about the cost of drinks, he grabbed someone else's beer. When a bouncer asked him to leave, he went face to face with him. Several of his fellow soldiers, Boyle among them, coaxed him into the parking lot.
When Boyle and others tried to persuade Brown to return to Fort Bragg, Brown fled. When they caught up with him, pushing and shoving ensued. Then, the testimony shows, Brown ran into a nearby pine thicket.
"He was saying horrible things, like 'nobody loves me,' " said Spc. Ryan Sullivan, one of the soldiers who was there that night, in an interview outside the Ugly Stick with a Newsday reporter.
Boyle, Sullivan and six other soldiers pursued Brown into the forest. Boyle, the ranking member of the group, pinned Brown to the ground and locked his arm around Brown's neck in a chokehold. Others held Brown's arms and legs. They told Brown they would not let him up unless he agreed to return to the base, according to the testimony.
When Boyle freed Brown, Brown ran off again. Boyle and the others caught up with him, and Boyle again put him in a chokehold. At least one soldier present would later testify that Brown lost consciousness after Boyle urged him to "go to sleep."
One of the soldiers sat on Brown. Another ran back to the Ugly Stick to get plastic handcuffs from one of the bouncers, an off-duty Army captain. The men then cuffed Brown's hands behind his back, carried him out of the woods and drove him back to Fort Bragg.
Three soldiers who were questioned separately within hours of the incident said Brown was groggy but conscious when he was placed into the car's backseat, according to the records. "He was talking, albeit his words were very slurred," Sgt. Kyle Saltz told Army investigators. Saltz said another soldier held Brown's legs as they loaded him in the car because he was kicking.
When they got to Fort Bragg, Brown was not responsive. The men called for an ambulance, and Boyle began performing CPR. Brown never regained consciousness.
Five months after the incident in the woods, prosecutors charged Boyle and six other soldiers in connection with Brown's death. Boyle was charged with involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy to commit battery, which came with the possibility of a 10-year sentence. Lesser charges were leveled at the other soldiers, none of whom have received jail time. They were Pfc. Andrey Udalov, 21, of Brooklyn; Spc. Ryan Sullivan, 23, of Mount Laurel, N.J.; Sgt. Christopher Mignocchi, 22, of Hollywood, Fla.; Sgt. Kyle G. Saltz, 25, of Richland, Wash.; Spc. Joseph A. Misuraca, 22, of Harper Woods, Mich.; and Charles DeLong, of Dade City, Fla.
A soldier who was with the others, Sgt. Mitchell Lafortune, agreed to testify for the prosecution and was not charged.
Sgt. Justin Boyle
Ten days after the two jets piloted by terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, killing 2,726 people, Boyle joined the Army Reserve unit based in Uniondale, the 310th Military Police Battalion. He was 20 on the day he enlisted, and by all accounts he wanted to play a part in his country's defense. Along with his unit, Boyle left for Iraq in 2003, soon after the U.S. invasion. He was promoted to sergeant on May 1, 2006.
Boyle's personnel records, and interviews with some of his fellow soldiers, paint a portrait of a motivated soldier who took well to military life and who earned the trust of others. He returned to Iraq with his unit two more times after his initial deployment.
During an eight-month period in 2006-07, the record shows, he went on more than 300 patrols in Ramadi, a city where the level of fighting was then among the worse in Iraq. During that deployment, an evaluation praised Boyle for showing "strong concerns for subordinates."
That praise would later place him in a critical position in the U.S. military's effort in Afghanistan. By his fourth tour of duty in a war zone, which ran from June 2007 to April 2008, Boyle had a top secret security clearance. He was the noncommissioned officer in charge of a unit assigned to identify potential threats in northeast Afghanistan, known as the CJ2X Counterintelligence Coordinating Authority.
Based near Kabul, Boyle was responsible for coordinating enlisted personnel doing intelligence gathering along Afghanistan's northeastern border with Pakistan. His military records show that Boyle's work helped lead to the identification of 37 spies working at Baghram Airfield and other U.S. bases, and helped identify terrorist activities in more than 12 countries.
In addition, the record shows, Boyle helped uncover a multimillion-dollar money laundering scheme in the United States with ties into Afghanistan. For his work, he was awarded the prestigious Meritorious Service Medal, whose citation reads: "His accomplishments will have lasting impact on counterintelligence." In April, 2008 - three months before the fatal incident in North Carolina - Boyle received the Army's Good Conduct Medal, "for exemplary behavior, efficiency and fidelity" for his service in Afghanistan.
His journey to the role of a decorated Army sergeant began in a fatherless household in Rocky Point. His parents split up while his mother was six-months pregnant with triplets - Justin and his two sisters. Ten months earlier, his oldest sister, Jennifer, had been born. His mother, Fran Boyle, supported her family by doing administrative work at Oceanside Institutional Industries, a commercial laundry business founded by her father. She married her first husband, Robert Boyle, when Justin was 6 years old, she said, and variously served as a Girl Scout leader, Cub Scout den mother, PTA president and member of the Rocky Point school board. Robert Boyle adopted the children.
Boyle went on to become a popular student at Rocky Point High, where he was a member of varsity wrestling and lacrosse teams. It was there that Boyle's willingness to get involved showed itself.
In the school's cafeteria, a fellow student had been taunting a boy who spoke with a pronounced stutter. The teasing continued throughout most of the lunch period, Boyle's sister Jessica recalled. Finally, Justin insisted the teasing stop. Blows were exchanged.
Another incident occurred years later, while Boyle was home on leave from the Army. He was with friends at a Long Island bar when a stranger offered to take home a woman in Boyle's party. Not trusting the man's intentions, Boyle offered to drive the woman home himself. He took her to her car as the man screamed in protest and drove her home.
But it was the death of a 19-year-old friend from Sound Beach the year before Boyle enlisted that Boyle's friends and family say he has carried with him.
The friend struggled with depression. Boyle would often spend time with him, trying to talk him through his moods. "There were times when he would get up in the middle of the night and jump in his car, and the next morning would say, 'I had to go talk with [the friend],' " Fran Boyle said.
On March 6, 2000, the friend shot himself dead at his Sound Beach home. "Justin was devastated by his death," Fran Boyle said. "He felt if he had been there, he could have stopped it."
Earlier this month, Boyle called his mother from prison. She asked him whether he had been thinking of his friend's death on the night of Brown's death. "The phone was silent for a while," Fran Boyle said. "He said, 'Yes.' But he didn't want to talk about it. I didn't push him."
Pfc. Luke Brown
By all accounts, Brown came from a close-knit Mormon family in Fredericksburg. He was one of six children. His one sister, Michelle, was the oldest and doted on her brothers. His father, Brad Brown, a retired Navy diver, was a shift supervisor at a nuclear power plant. His mother, Lucy, was a stay-at-home mom.
Michelle describes her brother as an avuncular hulk. He had a real fondness for ice cream and was known, she said, to stick his mouth beneath a soft-serve dispenser. He had been a high-school football star and was his siblings' protector. Michelle Brown recalled an incident when Brown learned that a younger brother was being menaced at a nearby video arcade. Brown jumped into his truck and sped to his defense.
"He was the guy who made sure nobody messed with our family," Michelle Brown said.
So when the trial of the man accused of choking their brother to death began, she and Adam Brown, the brother Brown had rushed to protect in the video arcade, drove the five hours to Fort Bragg to attend.
"I was angry," she said. "From the very beginning, my Dad though it was an accident, but I didn't know. I didn't understand why seven guys would be beating on my brother. That's why I felt it was very important for me to go down there to the trial. I wanted to see this man and talk to him so I could know for myself . . . "
She added that her parents share her view that Boyle should not have been prosecuted, believing that the soldiers had been trying to subdue her brother, who was intoxicated and behaving erratically and had refused to return to the fort.
Within minutes of trying to revive Brown after reaching Fort Bragg, Boyle and the others were separated and held by military police for questioning. Over the next 14 hours, Army officials took statements from each of the soldiers who had been in the woods with Brown. Most of the soldiers gave essentially the same account, Army investigation reports show. They said they had been concerned that Brown's intoxication and erratic behavior left them no choice but to try to bring him back.
In his opening statement, as the trial opened on Sept. 29 of last year, Army prosecutor Cpt. Richard Gallagher said Boyle acted recklessly by twice choking Brown unconscious in his determination to force Brown to return to the base. He said Brown never recovered from the second choking.
"At each location, Sgt. Boyle is the choker," Gallagher told the nine-member court martial panel composed of officers and enlisted personnel. "At each location, while Sgt. Boyle is choking Pfc. Brown, he's assisted by other soldiers - all junior to him - who are restraining Pfc. Brown."
Fort Bragg is home to the famed 82nd Airborne Division. Since 9/11, Bragg's principal mission has been to prepare soldiers going to or returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. The stress of both wars weighs on the personnel there, soldiers say, adding that the base has a reputation for soldiers who get liquored up at nearby bars.
Whether prosecutors could win a conviction against Boyle appeared to turn on two questions: how did Brown die and when did he die? Hours after the death, Dr. Carol Solomon, a deputy in the Armed Forces medical examiner's office based in Rockville, Md., performed an autopsy.
That report, released three months after the incident, listed both the manner and cause of death as "inconclusive." Solomon's report said Brown probably died either from choking or from a pre-existing heart condition. Brown's heart showed signs of chronic inflammation and was more than 50 percent larger than an average heart for a man of Brown's size, according to the report. Enlarged hearts are susceptible to deadly arrhythmia spasms, experts say.
A week before the Army held its equivalent of a grand jury inquiry to review whether the case should proceed to trial, the Army prosecutor telephoned Solomon and asked her about her findings. "He asked me to explain how I came to my conclusions," Solomon testified at Boyle's trial, which was scheduled after the grand jury filed formal charges.
Solomon acknowledged in her testimony that at the time of her autopsy she was aware that Brown had been violently choked. But Gallagher was insistent. He wanted her to reread sworn statements from witnesses describing the choking incident.
"Discussing this with Capt. Gallagher, I questioned whether my understanding was accurate," she testified.
Eighteen months after she performed the autopsy, and only days before the grand jury hearing, Solomon changed her autopsy report. "Inconclusive" now became "homicide."
Boyle's defense attorney, former Army lawyer Anita Gorecki, challenged Solomon's findings, saying that doubt over the cause of death expressed in the initial autopsy report made a conviction impossible. Gorecki then hired Dr. Michael Baden, co-director of the New York State Police forensic investigations unit, to review Brown's autopsy and render his own cause of death opinion.
Baden, an acclaimed forensic investigator by virtue of his highly public roles in congressional probes of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., testified he believed Brown died from a cardiac arrhythmia due to the effect of exertion on his enlarged heart.
If the assertions of several soldiers were true that Brown was alive when he was carried from the woods, Baden said, choking could not be the cause of death.
"I think as I sit here, that the most likely reason that Mr. Brown died is because he had . . . in my opinion, a very bad heart," Baden testified during the trial. " . . . I would call it as natural unless there was some evidence of criminality."
The prosecution offered testimony from one of the soldiers who originally said Brown showed signs of life as he was loaded into the car. Sgt. Mignocchi, who agreed to a guilty plea on a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony, testified that he lied when he told investigators the day Brown died that Brown had been kicking, screaming and biting as they loaded him in the car. Mignocchi said he claimed Brown was still moving when they got to the car because investigators had threatened him with a murder charge.
"I knew if I put that in my statement, you know, it would probably either save or at least help myself and probably the others," Mignocchi testified.
The court-martial panel deliberated less than three hours before issuing a verdict of guilty of involuntary manslaughter, a charge that could have brought a 10-year sentence, for Boyle. He was stripped of his rank and pay, and sentenced to 2 years in prison that will almost certainly be followed by dismissal from the military with a bad conduct discharge.
Maj. Brian Fickel, a spokesman with the 82nd Airborne Division, said neither prosecutors nor members of the panel would be made available for comment. Fickel said Boyle's trial had been handled routinely, and that the defense exercised its right in open court to raise doubts about changes that had been made to the autopsy report.
"Justin Boyle had a fair trial and the outcome speaks for itself," Fickel said.
The long drive to Oklahoma
A soldier who served above Boyle, Chief Warrant Officer Jim Lyonaise, said because soldiers at Fort Bragg are instructed to do "whatever it takes" to bring unruly soldiers back to base, Boyle should not be faulted for doing what he could to get Brown back to the barracks that night. He said he considers the verdict an injustice.
When it came time to transport Boyle to Fort Sill, Okla., where Boyle is now serving his sentence, Lyonaise volunteered to drive him the 1,300 miles.
"The only alternative was to put him on a commercial flight in shackles, and I couldn't stomach the thought of that," said Lyonaise, who made the trip along with one other soldier. "He has always done the right thing and has always been the perfect soldier."
Lyonaise recalls it as a somber drive. "Justin tried to keep people's spirits up," he said. "He'd say, 'Chief, this is not your fault.' "
Because military regulations stipulated that Boyle had to be imprisoned whenever they stopped for the night, they made arrangements for him to stay at the county jail in Jackson, Tenn. Because there was no bed available, Boyle spent the night on a floor.
"It was difficult for us to keep it together," Lyonaise said. "Here you have a decorated soldier who did multiple tours being treated like a common criminal. It was painful. I never thought I would be responsible for taking someone to jail who I thought didn't deserve to go."
JULY 19, 2008
About 10 soldiers from an 82nd Airborne Division intelligence unit based at Fort Bragg, N.C., including Sgt. Justin Boyle and Pfc. Luke Brown, meet at a bar in nearby Fayetteville. Brown becomes drunk and refuses to go back to base after closing time. During a struggle involving eight soldiers, Boyle uses a chokehold to try to restrain Brown. Boyle and the others bind Brown's wrists, put him in the backseat of a car, and drive back to base.
JULY 20, 3 A.M.
When they arrive at the base, Brown is not breathing. Boyle gives CPR, but Brown is dead. Within hours, a military pathologist begins an autopsy.
OCT. 17, 2008
An Army medical examiner's autopsy report says the cause of death is inconclusive.
DEC. 8, 2008
Boyle and six others are charged with involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy to commit assault.
Days before an Article 32 - the military equivalent to a grand jury investigation - a prosecutor confronts the Army medical examiner over her findings. She now says the cause of death was "homicide."
APRIL 17, 2009
The Article 32 results in a referral for a general court-martial - the equivalent of an indictment.
SEPT. 29, 2009
The court-martial begins.
OCT. 5, 2009
Boyle is convicted of involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy to commit assault; he six others of lesser charges. Brown's sister Michelle Brown tells a sentencing hearing that her family believes Boyle was trying to help her brother and should not be jailed. Boyle receives 2 years in prison, almost certainly to be followed by a bad-conduct discharge.