Home » Budget Industry » Navy: Criminal Charges for COs, Crewmembers Likely Final Accountability Action for McCain, Fitzgerald Collisions; Initial Hearings Will be in D.C.

Navy: Criminal Charges for COs, Crewmembers Likely Final Accountability Action for McCain, Fitzgerald Collisions; Initial Hearings Will be in D.C.

USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) is loading onto the heavy lift transport vessel MV Transshelf. US Navy Photo

This post has been corrected to reflect early accountability actions taken on USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) after the collision on Aug. 21 with a merchant tanker. The commander and executive officer were removed from their positions, not the Command Master Chief. The post has also been amended to clarify the definition of negligent homicide under military law.

Criminal charges against crew members involved in the two fatal 2017 surface navy collisions that cost the lives of 17 sailors are likely the last accountability actions to be taken by the service, as the admiral overseeing the process has completed his review, Navy officials told USNI News on Wednesday.

Now the commander of USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) and the commander and three junior officers on USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) will face a combination of dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and negligent homicide charges in a series of preliminary court-martial hearings in the Washington, D.C. area.

A chief petty officer also faces a dereliction of duty charge that has already been preferred related to the McCain incident.

The Navy had already taken administrative actions up and down the chain of command – including firing the leadership triad of Fitzgerald, the commander and executive officer of McCain, the destroyer squadron commander that oversaw both ships, the task group commander in charge, the U.S. 7th Fleet commander, and, as of this week, the commander of U.S. Naval Surface Forces.

The criminal charges against both commanding officers and the Fitzgerald crewmembers take the accountability measures to a new level, as the Consolidated Disposition Authority in the case, Adm. James F. Caldwell, wraps up his work.

Former USS Fitzgerald commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson (left), Former USS John S. McCain commander Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez (right). USNI News Image

Asked by USNI News how the CDA determined where to draw the line between administrative and criminal actions, spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Dan Day said, “the CDA has been diligent and comprehensive in completing a thorough review of all relevant information, including accountability actions to date. … The CDA reviewed the actions and responsibilities of the chain of command. There were no individuals who had a direct causal link leading to the collisions; however, consistent with the findings of the Comprehensive Review there were responsibilities within the chain of command that were not met, allowing an erosion of standards and accumulation of operational risk. The CDA independently determined that previously enacted accountability actions were appropriate and sufficient,” Day said, referring to the slew of firings and other potential administrative actions.

“The CDA did find that sufficient and adequate actions have been taken against officers higher up in the chain of command.,” he added.
“The actions taken thus far have been firm but fair at all levels of the chain of command.”

Day said Caldwell’s review is now complete and that no new accountability actions would be taken unless additional information came to light.

Adm. James F. Caldwell, Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. US Navy Photo

The Article 32 hearings are being scheduled for the Washington-Capital area, though the timing has not yet been announced.

While the specific charges have not been issued publicly, the most serious charges – negligent homicide – is faced by McCain commander Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez and some, if not all, of the officers on the team that stood watch during Fitzgerald’s collision.

According to accounts of the Aug. 21 collision between McCain and a merchant oil tanker off the coast of Singapore, Sanchez was on the bridge directing an inexperienced watch team that included sailors unfamiliar with the helm system on the destroyer. That unfamiliarity with the system was partly to blame for the loss of control of the warship for three minutes in one of the busiest merchant maritime channels in the world — a loss of control that led to the collision.

In the June Fitzgerald collision, the bridge crew and the Officer of the Deck repeatedly violated the standing orders of commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson while operating off the coast of Japan and left him asleep in his stateroom until the collision.

Under military law, “there has to be a causal link between an ‘act or failure to act of the accused’ which ‘amounted to simple negligence’ which ‘caused the death’ of the other person,” former Marine and military lawyer Robert “Butch” Bracknell told USNI News this week.

However, the argument that both commanders poorly trained their crews may not be enough to convince a members panel.

“If the act on which the government is relying is failing to properly train and supervise the sailors on watch whose errors led to the two collisions, that’s a long causation stretch to the deaths of the sailors at sea,” Bracknell said.
“It’s hard to imagine a similar causal link, for criminal legal purposes, between the CO’s failure to train the crew and the tragic deaths of the sailors on the Fitz and the McCain.”

Former Navy lawyer Brian Bouffard, who has previously defended two negligent homicide cases, said the government would not have to prove that the watch team and commanding officer acted with intent to harm or kill the sailors who died in the collision.

“The problem with negligent homicide is that most [other] criminal statutes – state, federal, military, whatever – require that a person act with some criminal intent. They commit a crime and intend for the result to occur or they know that the result is going to occur or maybe they act with criminal negligence or criminal recklessness. The idea is that we punish people who act but also acted from a bad state of mind,” he told USNI News.
“[Negligent homicide prosecution] is typically government overreaching – criminalizing simple negligence.”

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) is lowered from the heavy lift transport MV Treasure on December 13, 2017. John S. McCain will undergo repairs at Ship Repair Facility – Japan Regional Maintenance Center in Yokosuka. (U. S. Navy photo)

Meanwhile, Caldwell’s CDA recommendations and the ongoing effort to make the surface forces safer will be at the heart of a Thursday hearing before a joint session of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces and readiness subcommittees.

“[On Caldwell’s recommendations], I think it’s extraordinarily important to make sure the Navy sends a signal not just to folks outside the Navy but also within the Navy as to the level of operation and responsibility and accountability they expect within the Navy, and then if that doesn’t occur the severity of actions that will result because of that. I think that sends an extraordinarily strong message both inside and outside the Navy as to the importance of this issue,” seapower chairman Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) told USNI News on Wednesday.

  • Uncle Mike

    Criminal charges won’t stick, but they will get the fleet’s attention.

    • NavySubNuke

      There is a chance they will for the McCain. I’m personally more worried that COs will get the wrong message and will really seek to micromanage everything their OODs are doing.
      At some point JOs and DHs need to learn to drive the ship without dad constantly standing over their shoulder and telling them how to drive. That won’t happen if COs are too terrified to ever let them have even an inch of leash.

  • thebard3

    In the case of the Fitzgerald, I think it’s unlikely that this was the first time that Captain’s standing orders were not followed, and that he was totally unaware of it. Assuming that’s true, it would be grossly negligent of the CO to not take some corrective action. In case of the McCain, The CO had to be aware of the watch team’s unfamiliarity with the helm controls, and therefore negligent to not augment the bridge watch with an experienced helmsman until that situation was remedied. If the CO’s took appropriate remedial actions, they should be found not guilty. If not, well, too bad. Details should emerge during the hearings.

  • Charles Pierce

    This will simply show up how unready that the Navy is and not show well for the Navy. If this goes to trial the entire Navy training system, time and money, will be put on trial. The offices have nothing to lose, so why not show the flaws in the system.

    • John Locke

      From another angle……… the way the military is utilized, foreign policy, and DoD budget have played a larger part and should garner some time on the witness stand.

      • Charles Pierce

        You may be right, the problem is that the Navy will take extraordinary steps to not make itself look bad. I wonder what will happen when the Defense Attorney tries to bring the issue up and the Judge says no, and they then go to the press and release all of the information and indicts the Navy for poor leadership.

  • Western

    Mr. Bouffard would characterize these events as “simple negligence.” A jury or a courts-martial board can tell the difference between reporting for duty with a wrinkled uniform (simple negligence) and ignoring your duty as a watchstander in the middle of the night when the crew is placing their very lives in your hands and trusting you will perform your job (gross negligence).

  • Duane

    Let there be a trial, and a defense, and then we’ll see what comes out in the trial. It is good for this process to take place, for the victims, for their families, for the Navy, and for the nation.

  • Mike Mulligan

    I think the CNO and his staff should also be put on trial for their amazing incompetent fleet wide situational awareness. Will the charged COs put the Navy on trial… Bet you they don’t worrying about their pensions.

  • Mike Mulligan

    It sounds like the officers putting their careers and promotions ahead of the safety of the ship. I won’t make waves to the higher brass, even if my ship is dangerous…

  • CharleyA

    I’d like to see Congressional hearings on the state of the Navy after this is all over. Perhaps a censure of some VADMs and above is in order.

  • Ed L

    What about the Boatswain mate for the watch? When I stood those watches through five deployments on 3 different ships and numerous back by Friday cruises and exercises. I was responsible for all bridge enlisted watch standards an lookouts. In addition I provided support to the quartermaster watch. By providing manpower ( Messenger of the watch ) to the quartermasters in standing their watch. On those ships the boatswain of the watch and a quartermaster of the watch were required to read and Initial the commanding officer night orders. On more than one occasion when the OOD and JOOD were befuddled by a situation, I informed the OOD that I was calling the Captain. They never objected. Well one fellow did and wrote me up for that. The XO reminded him that I save his bacon. Caused I told the skipper in that situation the OOD okay me calling. Oh as BMOW I would always talk to the Signalmen on watch to back up the lookouts and the BT and MM off the watch in the hold. We take about letting each other know when fresh coffee and donuts were available on the messdecks drills they had Schedule, etc and if I was going to have a steering casualty drill. So there be no surprises

    Boatswain Mate of the Watch (BMW). The BMW is the principal enlisted assistant of the OOD with a boatswain mate rating responsible for the bridge and deck watch. He conducts muster of the incoming watch section and sees to it they are properly posted and the outgoing watch section is properly relieved. He makes regular inspection of the top decks and upper deck compartments for any unusual occurences and reports same to the OOD . He makes appropriate announcements to the ship’s PA system in accordance with the ship’s routine, subject to the permission of the OOD, and may sound the alarm for scheduled drills or actual emergencies.

    When I was a deck LPO I would make up the underway watch I’ll for pick lookouts and bridge watchstanders. Normally I would use BM3’s for BMOW. If I didn’t have enough I would use BM2’s and on many occasions I would stand a BMOW to spell a sick BMOW or to evaluate a BMOW for evaluations or if there was a problem with the watch.