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.”
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.