KANEOHE BAY, Hawaii – A military jury on Thursday found a Marine sergeant not guilty of charges in the hazing of a lance corporal who later committed suicide in Afghanistan.
The general court martial panel of three officers and five enlisted Marines deliberated about an hour before announcing their verdict that Sgt. Benjamin Johns was not guilty of violating a lawful order by wrongfully humiliating and demeaning Lance Cpl. Harry Lew.
Prosecutors alleged Johns hazed Lew by ordering him to dig a foxhole as punishment for falling asleep on guard duty at their patrol base in a remote part of Helmand province. They also charged the 26-year-old from Russelville, Ark., didn't intervene when a corporal punished Lew by making him carry a sandbag around the base.
Tim Bilecki, Johns attorney, told the jury in closing arguments the foxhole was needed to protect the base, which had already come under attack by Taliban fighters multiple times, and keep Lew awake while on watch duty.
"If something is necessary for the mission, it's not hazing," Bilecki said.
He also told them Johns stopped the sandbag carrying as soon as he became aware of it.
Johns is one of three Marines accused of hazing Lew in the hours before he fatally shot himself at Patrol Base Gowragi on April 3. The 21-year-old was the nephew of U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif.
There hasn't been any evidence to prove Lew killed himself because of the abuse, so the military judge presiding over the trial, Col. Michael Richardson, said jurors wouldn't be told about the suicide. They were only told that Lew, of Santa Clara, Calif., has died.
The alleged incident happened while the squad was assigned to a small patrol base in a remote area where the U.S. was trying to disrupt Taliban drug and weapons trafficking.
Capt. Jesse Schweig, the lead prosecutor on the case, argued that Johns ordered Lew to dig the foxhole out of anger that Lew fell asleep again on watch when he had just promised Johns he would stay awake. Schweig said Johns took this as a personal slight, and proceeded to contrast Lew to "everything a Marine had done."
"The implication is Lew is different — he is no longer a Marine," Schweig said.
Schweig argued Johns was so angry he didn't want to wait for Lew to go through the military disciplinary process — called non-judicial punishment — for sleeping because it would take too long.
The first Marine to face trial in the case, Lance Cpl. Jacob Jacoby, was sentenced to 30 days in jail and demoted to private first class after pleading guilty to assault last week.
The third Marine, Lance Cpl. Carlos Orozco III, allegedly put his foot on Lew's back, ordered Lew to do pushups and side planks, and poured sand into Lew's face. Orozco has been charged with assault, humiliating Lew, and cruelty and maltreatment. His court-martial is pending.