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Trial Date Set for McCain CO, Senior Enlisted Sailor; Fitzgerald CO Waives Preliminary Hearing

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. US Navy Photo

A previous version of this story indicated that Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jeffery D. Butler had faced more serious charges earlier this year. In fact, Butler was neither charged with hazarding a vessel nor negligent homicide in January.

The former commander of USS John. S. McCain (DDG-56) and a senior enlisted crewmember will face separate courts-martial next week for their roles in a fatal collision that killed ten sailors in August.

Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez will face a single charge of dereliction of duty in a special court-martial at the Washington Navy Yard on May 25, the Navy announced on Monday. Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jeffery D. Butler will appear before a summary court-martial for similar charges on May 24.

The Navy would not provide the charging documents for Sanchez and Butler when contacted by USNI News on Monday.

Sanchez had faced more serious charges that included negligent homicide and hazarding a vessel earlier this year, according to a January statement from the service.

Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez. US Navy Photo

The trials will be the latest actions overseen by Adm. James Caldwell, director of Naval Reactors, who is the Consolidated Disposition Authority appointed to consider additional accountability for the fatal McCain and USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) collisions.

Last week, Lt. j.g. Sarah B. Coppock pleaded guilty to similar charges facing Sanchez for her role in the June Fitzgerald collision. Coppock was sentenced to a relatively light punishment of three months reduced pay and given a punitive letter of reprimand.

A military criminal defense lawyer said the reduction in charges and the nature of the courts-martial for defendants like Coppock and Sanchez indicate defendants are reaching agreements to face lesser charges as part of a round of plea-arrangements.

“Sounds like we’re in deal city,” Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, told USNI News on Monday.
“It may be that they’re having buyer’s remorse on taking a hardline [on these case] in the first place… There were fatalities but these cases maybe difficult to turn into criminal proceedings. “

In the same announcement, the Navy said former Fitzgerald commander, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, had waived his right for an Article 32 preliminary hearing charges including dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and negligent homicide.

“Updates on future hearings related to this case will be provided as they become available,” the Navy said in a statement.

More actions are pending.

Lt. Natalie Combs and Lt. Irian Woodley, two junior officers on watch in Fitzgerald’s combat information center during the collision, face court-martial on charges of dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and negligent homicide. The pair had a combined Article 32 hearing last week.

In addition to the criminal charges, the Navy has issued 18 non-judicial punishments to sailors involved in the incidents – 10 for Fitzgerald and eight for McCain.

The following is the May 14, 2018 statement from the service.

Update to Trial Dates for USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald
Release Date: 5/14/18

The former commanding officer of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62), Cmdr. Bryce Benson, has voluntarily waived his right to an Article 32 hearing previously scheduled for May 21, 2018. In light of this waiver, the hearing is canceled. Updates on future hearings related to this case will be provided as they become available.

Additionally, trial dates are scheduled in the cases related to the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) collision. Hearings will be held at the Navy Yard, Naval District Washington.

Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jeffery D. Butler is scheduled to appear before a summary court-martial on May 24, 2018 for violation of Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), Article 92 (Dereliction of Duty). Also, the former McCain commanding officer, Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, is scheduled for arraignment at a special court-martial on May 25, 2018, for violation of UCMJ, Article 92 (Dereliction of Duty).

Charges against these individuals are only allegations. Each accused is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

  • D. Jones

    “Sounds like we’re in deal city,” Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, told USNI News on Monday.

    Would expect nothing less from a Yale lawyer, where deals matter, sailors’ lives, not so much.

    “Deal city”. Maybe the Navy needs a funding cut as a wakeup call if things have fallen this far.

    Cannot imagine how the families of the fallen sailors feel.

    • wilkinak

      Why criticize Fidell? He’s not making the deals or even condoning them. He’s giving his view of the situation. The deals are a product of the Navy, not a Yale lawyer.

  • proudrino

    “It may be that they’re having buyer’s remorse on taking a hardline [on these case] in the first place… There were fatalities but these cases maybe difficult to turn into criminal proceedings. “

    Or maybe the Navy wants these incidents to go away. Senior leaders have been replaced or given the opportunity to retire. There have been appropriate ceremonies in the Pentagon auditorium for the lost sailors. Current surface leaders are taking refuge in a Potemkin villiage that includes a sham “shiphandling” course at Newport, extra layers of bureaucracy, and a raft of studies about sleep cycles and manning levels- all to bolster the claim that the systemic problems have been identified and resolved. From the Navy’s standpoint, there is nothing to be gained by prolonging the disciplinary portion of this long meandering saga.

    But keep in mind. Navy leaders may have unfurled the mission accomplished banner but the underlying problems still exist and without real leadership and fundamental change there will be additional ceremonies in the Pentagon auditorium.

    • Ed L

      They should have never gotten rid of the signalmen.
      The signalman is responsible for visual communications in the Navy. When ships are under “radio silence,” all ship-to-ship communications in the area are performed by signalmen.

      The methods of signaling used aboard include flashing the 12-inch signal search light, using semaphore flags and flag hoists.

      By flashing the signal search light, SMs convey messages at a rate of 10 five-character coded words per minute, transmitting the message by opening and shutting a lens which allows rays of light to escape for intervals representing dots and dashes, deciphered through the International Morse Code.

      The semaphore flags or “sticks” are moved in different directions, and each angle at which the stick is pointed signifies a different letter in the alphabet. Using this method, an SM sends plain language messages at a rate of 125 characters per minute.

      On a moment’s notice, signalmen hoist flags on halyards, which are lines running from the yardarm of the mast down to the signal bridge. SMs must know what each flag and pennant represents, and the meaning of standard flag hoist combinations.

      When not signaling, signalmen are on the alert for signals from other vessels and aircraft, all the while keeping a sharp lookout for enemy aircraft and ships. SMs must also know storm warnings, distress signals, emergency signals, and signals to lifeboats and aircraft.

      • kapena16

        Tell us why.

        • Ed L

          If you don’t know why It’s because you don’t understand the value that the signalman rating bought to the underway watch bill. Here read this The signalman is responsible for visual communications in the Navy. When ships are under “radio silence,” all ship-to-ship communications in the area are performed by signalmen.

          The methods of signaling used aboard include flashing the 12-inch signal search light, using semaphore flags and flag hoists.

          By flashing the signal search light, SMs convey messages at a rate of 10 five-character coded words per minute, transmitting the message by opening and shutting a lens which allows rays of light to escape for intervals representing dots and dashes, deciphered through the International Morse Code.

          The semaphore flags or “sticks” are moved in different directions, and each angle at which the stick is pointed signifies a different letter in the alphabet. Using this method, an SM sends plain language messages at a rate of 125 characters per minute.

          On a moment’s notice, signalmen hoist flags on halyards, which are lines running from the yardarm of the mast down to the signal bridge. SMs must know what each flag and pennant represents, and the meaning of standard flag hoist combinations.

          When not signaling, signalmen are on the alert for signals from other vessels and aircraft, all the while keeping a sharp lookout for enemy aircraft and ships. SMs must also know storm warnings, distress signals, emergency signals, and signals to lifeboats and aircraft.

          • kapena16

            So you failed to explain what this would mean, with respect to changing the outcome of the collisions. Both of them. So take another stab at it.

            How would having a signalman on the bridge of two US Navy ships altered the outcome of these two accidents?

          • Mooseflstc

            From SM 1 & C:
            “On every ship, the lookout has an extremely important job. Even with today’s radars a good lookout is one of the OOD’s most valuable sources of information. A Signalman’s duties by nature also require keeping a sharp lookout. As a matter of pride, the Signalman should be the first to sight and identify objects.”

            The signalman would not have been on the bridge, they would have been on the signal bridge and had even better visibility of what was going on outside the ship. Signalmen also had powerful mounted binoculars, called “Big Eyes”.

            What don’t you understand about how an expert lookout could have altered the outcome of these two accidents?

  • kaigun2

    I’m confused as to where the BMC comes into this. Was he on the bridge?

    • Bill Ridings

      Exactly my question. Given the charge, I wonder if he was the OOD, even though the CO was there on the bridge the entire time.

      • Ed L

        I used to do that being the watch bill coordinator. Most ships I served on we had 3 deck division. 1st, 2nd and Fox (gunner mates). We would meet weekly to keep the underway watch Bill correct and balance. I worked with the QM,SM and CIC LPO on Lookout training. The GM’s usually stood after steering watch so the Fox LPO would work with the engineers who maintain the steering engine. The other LPO worked with the the QM’s to ensure lee helm and steersman were up to par. So it was down to 7 LPO’s who worked together to ensure we had qualified underway watchstanders. When I got my ESWS pin (at the beginning of the ESWS program which was heavy on engineering) I was qualified as a throttle man in the Main spaces. We would let the chiefs know how it was going. But in truth if a member of the underway bridge/lookouts screwed up. One of us would be on the bridge ASAP Usually it was the OOD seeing me up by the windlass and telling me to get up to the bridge

    • Ed L

      Could have he been responsible for the assigning people to enlisted bridge watchstanders/lookout and ensuring qualifications are done for enlisted bridge watch standers