Sgt. 1st Class Robert Nicoson, the paratrooper who was accused of leading a patrol into an unnecessary gunfight in Syria before ordering troops to delete videos of the incident, was acquitted of all charges Friday evening after a court-martial at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The soldier’s civilian defense attorney, Phillip Stackhouse, argued that the patrol had briefed leaders that it would go to the checkpoint and the alleged threats Nicoson made were intended to deter an attack. Accusations that Nicoson tried to cover up the incident ultimately lost traction, as well.
“He was fully acquitted of all of the allegations,” Stackhouse told Army Times.
Spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division, Lt. Col. Brett Lea, confirmed the acquittal Saturday morning.
The jury was comprised of two lieutenant colonels and six command sergeants major, Stackhouse said. They found Nicoson not guilty of all seven allegations. A motion for a finding of not guilty was granted to an eighth allegation at the end of the evidence phase.
“The trial lasted for a week and over 20 witnesses were called to the stand to provide testimony to a combat experienced panel,” Stackhouse said in an email to Army Times. “After just over 2-hours of deliberations, the panel president delivered the verdict in open court.
“Sergeant First Class Nicoson, and his family, continue to be humbled and thankful to those that have supported him and stood by his side.”
The charges against Nicoson came after an Aug. 17, 2020 incident at a checkpoint in northeastern Syria manned by troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Nicoson’s patrol drove up to the checkpoint and a gunfight unfolded.
Originally, Nicoson was charged with dismounting his vehicle and threatening to kill the pro-regime fighters if they did not allow his unit, Blackhorse Troop, 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, through. U.S. officials said at the time of the incident that the Americans had initially been cleared to move through the checkpoint.
After “receiving safe passage from pro-regime forces,” the Americans “came under small arms fire from individuals in the vicinity of the checkpoint” and returned fire in self-defense, Operation Inherent Resolve spokespeople said at the time.
A roughly 10-minute gunfight reportedly erupted, leading to the killing of one Syrian fighter and the wounding of two others. There were no U.S. casualties. A portion of the gunfight was caught on video, though it does not show how it began.
After the shootout, the charge sheets claimed Nicoson ordered two soldiers to delete video recordings of the unit’s actions at the checkpoint in an attempt to cover up any potential wrongdoing.
Early on, there were questions about the allegations.
The accusations against Nicoson were first reported in April by Army Times. Nicoson was arraigned in August. But a July preliminary hearing report obtained by Army Times detailed how the hearing officer recommended two charges against Nicoson be dismissed — failure to obey an order and reckless endangerment.
“Although there is probable cause to support both of the specifications, the facts, as presented, leave room for doubt,” the hearing report reads. “The evidence is contradictory and seems colored by multiple conversations, rumors, and/or training conducted in the aftermath of the incidents.”
The Army CID investigation did not start until a couple months after the August 2020 incident, the preliminary hearing officer wrote in his report, adding that the “witnesses seem to have inherent bias and prejudice as a result of what they were told after the fact.”
But the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, still approved the full slate of charges, including the two that the preliminary hearing officer recommended dismissing.
In total, Nicoson was charged with two counts of failure to obey an order; two counts of reckless endangerment; one count of communicating threats; and three counts of obstructing justice.
The August 2020 clash occurred in a part of Syria where a tenuous U.S. military presence has guarded lucrative oil fields and chased lingering Islamic State fighters since the collapse of the extremist group’s territorial possessions. But altercations — like the one that followed Nicoson home, as well as more tame ones involving Russian forces — have highlighted the unpredictable nature of the mission there.
Nicoson’s charge sheets stated that the soldiers were supposed to stay two kilometers away from checkpoints like the one they ultimately encountered. But at trial, the soldier’s squadron commander explained that the guidance was not a “black and white order,” Stackhouse told Army Times.
The platoon leader, Stackhouse said, also briefed “going to” the pro-regime checkpoint to the troop commander. That platoon leader, who was not charged and who Stackhouse called “a solid officer,” was speaking with higher headquarters while Nicoson interacted with pro-regime forces.
Nicoson spoke to the pro-regime forces through a linguist and there was “some disagreement about what was actually said,” Stackhouse argued. Additionally, there were pro-regime fighters setting up offensive fighting positions during the interaction, prompting fear that the Americans were about to be attacked.
“We argued what(ever) was said was in self-defense of himself and his soldiers in an attempt to deter an attack. Self Defense was an instruction given to the panel,” Stackhouse said in an email to Army Times. “Obviously we do not know upon what theory the members returned a not guilty verdict.”
“Regarding the videos, there were issues argued about if it was said, what was actually said, and why something may have been said,” Stackhouse added. “Regardless, our position was that nothing occurred that was obstruction of justice.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer