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Navy drops homicide charges against Fitzgerald commander, junior officers

Jun 20, 2018 10:08 AM

Seven U.S. sailors died when the destroyer collided with a containership off Japan

USS Fitzgerald pierside at the U.S. naval base at Yokosuka, Japan, in June 2017.

Courtesy U.S. Navy

USS Fitzgerald pierside at the U.S. naval base at Yokosuka, Japan, in June 2017.

The following is text of a report from the U.S. Naval Institute (USNI):

(WASHINGTON) — The former commander of USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) and two junior officers will not face negligent homicide charges for their role in a collision off the coast of Japan that killed seven sailors last year.

Instead, ship commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson and Lt. Natalie Combs will face charges that include negligent hazarding a vessel and dereliction of duty resulting in death at general courts-martial, according to a Navy statement Tuesday. Lt. Irian Woodley, who was on duty with Combs, had all criminal charges against him dropped and will instead likely be separated from the Navy following a board of inquiry.

The decision to move ahead with the prosecution of Combs and Benson on lesser charges was made by Adm. James F. Caldwell, according to a Navy statement provided to USNI News. Caldwell is acting as the consolidated decision authority (CDA) for the accountability actions from last year’s fatal Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) collisions. He had originally issued the homicide charges against Woodley, Combs and Benson in January.

Benson was asleep in his cabin when the merchant ship ACX Crystal collided with Fitzgerald on June 17, 2017. Combs and Woodley were on duty in the destroyer’s Combat Information Center when the collision occurred. Prosecutors argued that the Combs and Woodley should have done more to help the bridge crew understand they were in danger as the ship transited a busy merchant shipping lane near Japan.

News of the lesser charges for Benson and Combs follows the recommendation earlier this month from an Article 32 hearing officer who said Combs and Woodley should face no charges for their role in the collision.

In his recommendation to drop criminal charges, Cmdr. Anthony Johnson said poor performance of Woodley and Combs in their duties wasn’t inherently criminal and didn’t merit a court-martial. He also said the objectively light punishment for the Fitzgerald officer of the deck Lt. j.g. Sarah B. Coppock, who bore responsibility for the collision, was a major part of his recommendation to not push the cases forward. Coppock faced similar homicide and negligence charges but pleaded guilty to one count of dereliction of duty as part of a plea agreement.

Combs’ lawyer said to single out his client for the ills of the ship was unfair and said a trial will clear her name.

“While Lt. Combs is obviously very disappointed in the decision of Adm. Caldwell, she nonetheless is resolute in her belief that when the facts are fully presented, she will be exonerated. The blame in this case is widespread,” Combs’ lawyer David Sheldon said in a statement provided to USNI News. “Fitzgerald had systemic problems with its equipment and training — to single this young woman, who has served honorably and with distinction, for prosecution is very troubling in the circumstance.”

For his part, Benson waived his right for an Article 32 hearing on his charges and said he would take the case to trial, according to a May press statement.

On Tuesday, Benson’s lawyers released a statement saying the former destroyer commander continued to have “trust and confidence” in the military justice system.

“The evidence now before Adm. Caldwell was the same evidence that initially caused him to bring a negligent homicide charge against
Cmdr. Benson,” read the statement provided to USNI News. “As the government apparently concedes, that charge was not warranted. A fair trial will reveal the remaining charges are likewise unsupported by the facts.”

All three had previously been given non-judicial punishment for their roles in the June 17 collision before Caldwell issued the criminal charges in January.

In addition to Fitzgerald prosecutions, former commander of McCain, Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, pleaded guilty to a single charge of negligence after facing similar negligent homicide charges for his role in the fatal Aug. 21 collision of the guided-missile destroyer and a merchant oiler. A senior enlisted sailor on McCain also pleaded guilty to one count of dereliction of duty for his role in training sailors aboard but had not faced similar homicide charges.

Beyond the courts-martial, Caldwell has overseen 18 non-judicial punishments related to both collisions.

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