Navy Official Recommends No Criminal Trial for USS Fitzgerald Junior Officers

June 8, 2018 3:00 PM
USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) moves into Dry Dock 4 at Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka to continue repairs and assess damage sustained from its June 17 collision with a merchant vessel. US Navy Photo

Two officers who faced negligent homicide charges for their role in the fatal June 2017 USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) collision have been recommended not to face court-martial and instead be separated from the Navy, according to a recommendation following a preliminary hearing last month.

The report, following a May 9 Article 32 hearing, recommended Lt. Natalie Combs and Lt. Irian Woodley face a board of inquiry for administrative separation rather than a criminal trial for charges that include negligent homicide, according to the recommendation of hearing officer Cmdr. Anthony Johnson.

Both officers were on watch in the Combat Information Center of Fitzgerald when the collision between the destroyer and merchant cargo ship ACX Crystal occurred off the coast of Japan on June 17, resulting in the deaths of seven sailors.

Johnson’s rationale for his decision hinged on two issues, according to details of the decision that USNI News has confirmed. The first is that poor performance in service isn’t inherently criminal and that the Navy has administrative actions to address failures in duty, such as removal from command, other than court-martial.

Second, the light punishment for the officer of the deck at the time of the collision was a factor in the recommendation. Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock was sentenced to three months reduced pay and issued a punitive reprimand as part of a guilty plea deal with prosecutors. Coppock had faced more charges similar to Combs and Woodley prior to the plea deal.

The recommendation is now before consolidated decision authority (CDA) Adm. James Caldwell, who will make the final determination on whether the case will proceed to court-martial. In a statement, the Navy would not directly comment on the results of the recommendation but did outline the process going forward.

“The recommendation of the preliminary hearing officer is pre-decisional and deliberative. We will not discuss anything short of a decision by the CDA,” the service said in a statement.
“The CDA is not bound by the recommendations of the Article 32 officer, but he must consider them. In addition, he must consider the advice of his military lawyer (the staff judge advocate). Only after weighing this information can he determine what the next step will be.”

While Caldwell, tasked to oversee punishments related to both the Fitzgerald collision and that of USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) as the CDA, could still elect to take the case to court-martial, Combs’ attorney said it’s likely Caldwell will concur with Johnson’s decision.

“I think what is happening is the Navy wants coverage in terms of saying ‘we went through the process, we held those accountable, including taking these two officers to an Article 32 hearing and we’re going the accede to the recommendation of the preliminary hearing officers.’ And to that extent, the Navy’s position is borne out,” David Sheldon told USNI News on Friday. “Obviously we’re happy with the recommendation. Lt. Combs is happy with the recommendation, but she does not believe that she is culpable for the tragedy that occurred.”

Prior to the charges put forth by Caldwell in January, Combs and Woodley had received unspecified punishments at admiral’s mast following the incidents.

The recommendation from Caldwell could come as early as next week, USNI News understands.

In addition to Woodley and Combs, the former commander of Fitzgerald still faces charges that include dereliction of duty, negligent homicide and hazarding a vessel.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson waived his Article 32 hearing and pledged to take his case to trial in a press statement last month.

“Cmdr. Benson was the Commanding Officer — and rightly understood the accountability that is the historical burden of command at sea. As such, following the collision, he declined his right to appeal both his non-judicial punishment and his detachment for cause by commander, U.S. 7th Fleet,” read the May statement.
“A fair court-martial will expose the facts of the collision’s causes and Cmdr. Benson’s actions.”

Last month, the former commander of John S. McCain and a senior enlisted sailor in charge of training bridge watch standers pleaded guilty to single counts of negligence for their roles in the fatal Aug. 21 collision between the warship and a merchant oiler off of Singapore.

Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez was sentenced to a punitive letter of reprimand and forfeiture of $6,000 in pay on May 25. As part of the plea agreement, he has requested to retire, and that request will be allowed or denied later in the accountability proceedings.

Then-Chief Boatswain Mate Jeffery Butler pleaded guilty to one count of dereliction of duty on May 24 and was reduced in rank to E-6.

In addition to the court-martials, 18 sailors who served on McCain and Fitzgerald have received non-judicial punishment.

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
Follow @samlagrone

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox