Home » Budget Industry » Officer Accused of Negligence in Fitzgerald Collision Will Face Special Court-Martial Next Week as Part of Likely Plea Deal

Officer Accused of Negligence in Fitzgerald Collision Will Face Special Court-Martial Next Week as Part of Likely Plea Deal

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

A junior officer accused of negligence in the fatal collision of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) last summer will face a special court-martial next week on charges of dereliction of duty in a trial at Washington Navy Yard, the Navy announced this week. Based on the circumstances of the case, the trial is part of a likely plea deal that would involve the officer becoming a prosecution witness in courts-martial stemming from the same collision, two military defense lawyer told USNI News. 

The yet-unidentified junior officer will appear before a military judge on Tuesday on a charge of “negligent dereliction of duty resulting in death” – a violation of Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, according to a statement from the Navy.

Previous to this week’s announcement, the Navy said three junior officers on Fitzgerald had faced much more serious charges including negligent homicide. The less-severe charge indicates the defense and the prosecution have reached a plea agreement, Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, told USNI News on Tuesday.

“As these things go, that’s a relatively minor offense,” he said.
“It sounds like there’s a guilty plea.”

A Tuesday USNI News request for a redacted charge sheet for the officer was acknowledged by a Navy Judge Advocate General spokesperson, but the document was not immediately provided.

In January USNI News first reported that two Fitzgerald lieutenants and one lieutenant junior grade, who were believed to be on duty during the collision with a merchant ship off the coast of Japan that killed seven sailors, faced dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and negligent homicide charges. Two of those officers will face a military judge next Wednesday for a preliminary Article 32 hearing in Washington.

Ship commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson, who was asleep in his stateroom when the collision occurred, faces charges that include dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and negligent homicide, according to a January statement from the service. His Article 32 preliminary hearing is set for May 21.

One military defense attorney told USNI News that the trial is most likely to formalize a plea deal with government prosecutors that will come with an obligation to testify against Benson during his court-martial.

“They’re probably rolling this person up as a witness,” Rob “Butch” Bracknell, a former Marine and military lawyer, told USNI News on Tuesday.
“If this person was in a position to give evidence to give against the CO, then the plea deal will come with an offer of testimonial immunity and an order to testify. It’s perfectly normal.”

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

Not included in the announcement was an Article 32 date for Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez on charges of dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and negligent homicide related to the fatal August collision of USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) and a merchant oil tanker off the coast of Singapore.

“An update on dates for cases related to the USS John S. McCain will be forthcoming,” a statement from the Navy reads.

McCain CO Sanchez was on the bridge and overseeing a crew of cross-decked sailors from the crew of cruiser USS Antietam (CG-54) during the entrance into a busy merchant channel. During the transit, the sailors not qualified with the controls of the destroyer lost control of the ship and collided with a merchant tanker, resulting in the death of 10 sailors, according to a subsequent investigation into the incident.

Former McCain executive officer Cmdr. Jessie L. Sanchez was found guilty of violating Article 92 in a February non-judicial punishment hearing in overseen by Adm. James Caldwell.

Caldwell, director of Naval Reactors, was appointed in October as the Consolidated Disposition Authority tasked to oversee additional accountability actions for the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions.

The CDA’s role is to provide consistent accountability actions for an incident or a series of related incidents.

Caldwell recommended the charges for Benson, Sanchez and the three Fitzgerald officers. In addition, he’s issued non-judicial punishment for almost 20 sailors involved in the two collisions.

The following is the complete April 30, 2018 statement from the Navy.

WASHINGTON — Article 32 and now trial dates are set in the cases related to the USS Fitzgerald collision. All hearings will be held at the Navy Yard, Naval District Washington.

For USS Fitzgerald, one junior officer is scheduled for arraignment and entry of pleas at a Special Court-Martial on May 8, 2018 for violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), Article 92 (Negligent Dereliction of Duty Resulting in Death). A joint Article 32 hearing for two junior officers is scheduled for May 9, 2018. An Article 32 hearing for the Commanding Officer is scheduled for May 21, 2018.

An update on dates for cases related to the USS John S. McCain will be forthcoming.

All individuals alleged to have committed misconduct are entitled to a presumption of innocence.

  • Western

    In a world where seemingly no one is held accountable for their actions, this is refreshing.

    • Fred Gould

      Key word, junior.

      • roner

        They’re also working on the senior guys, as indicated in the words in the article.

        • Fred Gould

          I will believe it when I see it. Fat Lenard took far too long. Retired USN CPO.

    • David C

      Yes, but not as refreshing as it should be. Dereliction of duty, how about the CNO & CINCPAC who sent ships to sea without properly trained seaman? How about Naval Education and Training Command who sent SWOs to sea who were undertrained? All of these heavies failed in their duty and are walking scot-free. Is it time to flush a few sycophant 3 & 4 stars and replace them with people who know their navy? Until the executive branch or congress asks why navy leadership put ships to sea without properly trained SWOs & watch standers, why operations replaced training for PAC ships, this will remain a side show. You can cheer when a Commander gets hammered, but until guys with 4 stars on their collars are getting fired, this is a side show.

      • NavySubNuke

        You make some good points and those certainly played there part in this disaster.
        But the OOD is the one who recognized collision was imminent and yet never sounded the collision alarm. Even two or three minutes warning – more than ample given the Navy’s published timeline of what occurred – could have save the lives of everyone in berthing that day.

  • Charles Pierce

    I understand the concept where the commander is responsible for what his crew does or fails to do, but when will we start holding the upper levels and the politicians for not providing the resources in men and material to do the job.

    • roner

      The obvious problem here is that the guys on scene were not paying the least bit of attention where their ship was going. They were all probably playing with their phones the whole time, instead of looking outside.

      • Charles Pierce

        That may be true, but the problem is over work, over deployment and the lack of training time because the political folks have made the military to small to meet its basic mission obligation. The mission obligation did not go away but the number of units to do the job has been reduced, so what happens instead of doing 30 out and 20 home or what ever the cycle is; they are doing 45 out and 5 in. Can not train or keep good people with that kind of schedule.

        • CaptainParker

          And let us not forget all the time having to be spent on “training” on diversity, inclusion, sexual assault, LGBTQ rights and all the other social and political nonsense.

  • James Bowen

    This all smacks of scapegoating. The Navy can’t do more with less forever, and these two incidents were the logical result of overtasking, undertraining, and underfunding. Perhaps there were some specific actions that led to this that are attributable to the officers on these two ships that led to the collisions, but taking down the officers on the scene is not going to solve the more fundamental problems that would prevent this from happening again.

    • proudrino

      There is room to debate the idea that these incidents rise the the level of negligent homicide. That being said, it isn’t scapegoating to hold the commanding officers accountable. Did the COs report up the chain-of-command that they were overtasked, undertrained, or underfunded? Were the watchstanders derelict in their duties and did they hazard a vessel?

      There are definitely systemic problems that extend beyond individual ships. There are definitely more senior officers that should have been held to account instead of being allowed to retire. Nevertheless, expecting a Naval warship’s commanding officer and crew to be able to transit safely during peacetime steaming is not unreasonable. To call them to account for failing to do so is not scapegoating.

      • James Bowen

        I never said that they should not be held accountable. What does appear to be happening though is an effort to fix most of the blame on a few officers to make a political statement.

  • James Chapman

    A collision while the CO is asleep in his sea cabin? Did the Officer of the Deck read the CO’s night orders? Do COs still write night orders?

    What happened to “Call the Captain.”? When unusual situations arise, OODs should call the CO. It doesn’t even have to rise to the level of a risk of collision.

    Ships at sea don’t just “pop up.” Why didn’t the OOD call the CO when it became apparent there was a risk of collision? Did the OOD not know there was a risk of collision? Did the CO tell the OOD not to call him?

    I’ve been in trouble as the Officer of the Deck but never did I not call the CO when I was in trouble.

    I’ve taken ships into Singapore. Charts have well marked inbound and outbound traffic lanes and my experience was that ships pretty much stay in the lanes. The surface picture was busy but manageable. But, no way would I want to do it with unqualified, inexperienced bridge watchstanders.

    • NavySubNuke

      Never mind recognizing that collision is imminent, giving orders to avoid it and yet never even ordering the collision alarm to be sounded. You’ve got to give people a chance – sound the alarm and get them up and out of their bunks!!

      • D. Jones

        For reasons unknown, both OOD’s (Fitz & McCain) remain shrouded in secrecy.

  • Kim Chul Soo

    This is just a bone to the poorly informed. There is much, much more to this entire incident.

    • D. Jones

      Sure sounds like it. Zero info on what was going on in both bridges prior to the accidents.

  • One name. It is that of teflon “Richardson”.

  • Morris Steen

    What we are seeing in today’s Surface Navy where commanding officers are receiving junior officers with a pack of CD ROMS and inadequate training in watch standing, ship handling, seamanship, navigation, engineering, security, OPSEC, damage control and other skills young naval officers should have when they cross the brow reporting for duty. Collisions at sea and tragic loss of life have been the result of that negligence and heads are rolling! See the January 2018 issue of The Naval Institute Proceedings. It breaks my heart that our Navy has fallen so far so fast.

    With regard to these problems, I am not sure the “new guys”, the new “flags” know how to fix it. Bring Captain Kevin Eyer back on active duty, promote him to flag, and put him in charge of all Surface Warfare Training. He served in seven cruisers, commanded three cruisers, and has written extensively about the problems and issues in the Surface Warfare community. I have little confidence in the current flock of flags who LET THIS DEBACLE HAPPEN TO OUR NAVY! Find out whose stupid idea it was to close SWO school and send newly commissioned officers to ships with a hand-full of CD ROMS and court-martial him! And if you can, get the ENTIRE chain who “chopped off” on the most stupid idea that has ever come down the pike!

  • Curtis Conway

    If there are any loss of lives associated with the sinking of an LCS, I wonder if we can get a violation of Article 92 on the design teams?