By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 9, 2009
Amid a mundane conversation about fuel prices, Abdul Salam doused an American anthropologist with gasoline and lit her on fire, an attack in a small Afghan village last year that was as ferocious as it was unexpected. When Don M. Ayala learned what had happened to his colleague moments after subduing and handcuffing Salam, he placed his 9mm pistol against Salam's head and pulled the trigger, killing the detainee instantly.
Ayala, a former Army Ranger who was working on Afghanistan's battlefields as a contractor, admitted his crime and later entered a guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter in what U.S. federal prosecutors called an "execution." Yesterday, in an Alexandria federal courtroom, although prosecutors urged Judge Claude M. Hilton to impose a jail sentence of at least six years, Hilton spared Ayala jail time because of the horrific and emotional circumstances that preceded the slaying.
Ayala, 46, was instead sentenced to five years' probation and a fine of $12,500, which his attorney said reflected justice in a case that was as much about the horrible death of Paula Loyd, 36, as it was about the killing of Salam.
"The court recognized that this was an extraordinary case and that Mr. Ayala was put in an extraordinary position in which many others could have reacted the same way," said Michael Nachmanoff, a federal public defender who represented Ayala. "The focus of this case should be on the tragic loss of Paula Loyd."
Loyd was working in Afghanistan on a Pentagon project to better understand rural Afghanistan's communities. A vivacious woman who was described as caring deeply about the war-ravaged area, she was beloved by her colleagues. Salam's November attack left Loyd with severe burns on more than 60 percent of her body, and she survived two agonizing months before succumbing to her injuries in January at an Army hospital in Texas.
Immediately after the attack, Ayala helped apprehend Salam. When Ayala learned that Loyd had been burned and was writhing in pain nearby, he killed Salam almost immediately, according to court documents.
Prosecutors argued that Ayala, with decades of military experience, should have known that shooting Salam was illegal and should have been able to control himself. Although prosecutors said Salam deserves no sympathy, they also argued that Ayala exacted illegal revenge on a then-incapacitated detainee. Salam's motive and potential terrorist co-conspirators will never be known because he was slain.
"For what he did to Ms. Loyd, Salam probably deserved to die, but not when and as he did," wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael E. Rich. "That was not Ayala's decision to make, but he made it nevertheless -- and perhaps understandably so."
Ayala, of New Orleans, had extensive security experience and guarded top Iraqi and Afghan leaders during the past several years, including working on Afghan President Hamid Karzai's security detail from 2002 to 2004. Ayala returned to Afghanistan in September and was working with Loyd in the village of Chehel Gazi in Kandahar province when she was attacked Nov. 4.
Nachmanoff said in court documents that Ayala had a visceral response to learning of Loyd's injuries and in a "perfect storm" of conditions abandoned his years of discipline and made the wrong choice. In the documents, Ayala said he was stricken with emotion.
"I was overcome with the horror of what he had done to her, knowing that she was suffering and that she would never be the same, even if she lived," Ayala said, according to the documents.
Nachmanoff said Ayala has accepted full responsibility for his actions and regrets what happened that day. The voluntary manslaughter conviction means that Ayala will not be allowed to carry a firearm, and the provisions of his probation include that he have no security or protection-related employment for the next five years.