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Navy Drops Homicide Charges Against USS Fitzgerald Commander, Junior Officers

USS Fitzgerald pierside at the U.S. naval base at Yokosuka, Japan in June 2017.

This post has been updated to include statements from Cmdr. Bryce Benson and Lt. Natalie Combs.

The former commander of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and two junior officers will not face negligent homicide charges for their role in a collision off the coast of Japan that killed seven sailors last year, USNI News has learned.

Instead, ship commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson and Lt. Natalie Combs will face charges that include negligent hazarding a vessel and dereliction of duty resulting in death at general courts-martial, according to a Tuesday Navy statement. Lt. Irian Woodley, who was on duty with Combs, had all criminal charges against him dropped and will instead likely be separated from the Navy following a board of inquiry.

The decision to move ahead with the prosecution of Combs and Benson on lesser charges was made by Adm. James F. Caldwell, according to a Navy statement provided to USNI News on Tuesday. Caldwell is acting as the consolidated decision authority (CDA) for the accountability actions from last year’s fatal Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) collisions. He had originally issued the homicide charges against Woodley, Combs and Benson in January.

Benson was asleep in his cabin when the merchant ship ACX Crystal collided with Fitzgerald on June 17, 2017. Combs and Woodley were on duty in the destroyer’s Combat Information Center when the collision occurred. Prosecutors argued that the Combs and Woodley should have done more to help the bridge crew understand they were in danger as the ship transited a busy merchant shipping lane near Japan.

News of the lesser charges for Benson and Combs follows the recommendation earlier this month from an Article 32 hearing officer who said Combs and Woodley should face no charges for their role in the collision.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson, then-executive officer, assists in bringing down the battle ensign aboard USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) in 2016. US Navy Photo

In his recommendation to drop criminal charges, Cmdr. Anthony Johnson said poor performance of Woodley and Combs in their duties wasn’t inherently criminal and didn’t merit a court-martial. He also said the objectively light punishment for the Fitzgerald officer of the deck Lt. j.g. Sarah B. Coppock, who bore responsibility for the collision, was a major part of his recommendation to not push the cases forward. Coppock faced similar homicide and negligence charges but pleaded guilty to one count of dereliction of duty as part of a plea agreement.

Combs’ lawyer said to single out his client for the ills of the ship was unfair and said a trial will clear her name.

“While Lt. Combs is obviously very disappointed in the decision of Adm. Caldwell, she nonetheless is resolute in her belief that when the facts are fully presented, she will be exonerated. The blame in this case is widespread,” Combs’ lawyer David Sheldon said in a statement provided to USNI News. “Fitzgerald had systemic problems with its equipment and training — to single this young woman, who has served honorably and with distinction, for prosecution is very troubling in the circumstance.”

For his part, Benson waived his right for an Article 32 hearing on his charges and said he would take the case to trial, according to a May press statement.

On Tuesday, Benson’s lawyers released a statement saying the former destroyer commander continued to have “trust and confidence” in ther military justice system.

“The evidence now before Adm. Caldwell was the same evidence that initially caused him to bring a negligent homicide charge against
Cmdr. Benson,” read the statement provided to USNI News. “As the government apparently concedes, that charge was not warranted. A fair trial will reveal the remaining charges are likewise unsupported by the facts.”

All three had previously been given non-judicial punishment for their roles in the June 17 collision before Caldwell issued the criminal charges in January.

In addition to Fitzgerald prosecutions, former commander of McCain, Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez pleaded guilty to a single charge of negligence after facing similar negligent homicide charges for his role in the fatal Aug. 21 collision of the guided-missile destroyer and a merchant oiler. A senior enlisted sailor on McCain also pleaded guilty to one count of dereliction of duty for his role in training sailors aboard but had not faced similar homicide charges.

Beyond the courts-martial, Caldwell has overseen 18 non-judicial punishments related to both collisions.

  • Epictetus

    This is the correct call. Negligent homicide charges were largely based on the CO being “ultimately responsible” for all aspects of his or her ship. While that is absolutely true per Navy Regulations, Navy Regulations is not a punitive document and therefore not a source for levying charges. The UCMJ is a punitive document but there must be a clear standard of proximate cause in what the individual did, or did not do, to support charges. I’m actually surprised that the Navy choose to pursue those charges. To be honest, I’m not sure the Navy ever considered them viable, but instead listed the possible charges as up to Negligent Homicide with that being the theoretical, vice practical, max.

    • William Blankinship

      I agree with you. More training is the only answer. Included in the training should be the details of both of these incidents and the pictures of all the sailors that paid the intimate sacrifice.

      • Epictetus

        I agree training, or lack thereof, is a large part of the problem, but I think it goes deeper than that. There’s a cultural decay in regard to “ownership” within the surface Navy that has been creeping into the force for many years, and will likely take a while to remove. The force is so driven by “requirements” unrelated to warfighting that are meticulously tracked by ashore staffs to the point that a data-call that should be an insignificant priority becomes the #1 priority for command leadership. That is a problem, but my personal view is that it creates a culture that undermines the importance of core competencies (e.g., warfighting, navigation, maintenance) compared to the tasker of the day. Over decades (this started with email, not the Obama administration) it’s created a culture where chiefs and officers don’t feel true ownership of their ship and mission. That really isn’t their fault – it is the fault of big Navy leadership that has let this get out of hand. The old adage, “what interests my boss fascinates me” is true. But in this case, what appears to interest the “boss” of an afloat commanding officer is the administrivia of the day vice warfighting readiness. I don’t believe that message is intended by Leadership, but I do believe it is true.

        • William Blankinship

          I have been evolved with the Boy Scouts since I retired from Bell Helicopter. That program has really changed. Inclusiveness and political correctness is destroying it. The Navy suffers from some of that I am sure. Your take is pretty much dead on.

          • RDF

            You are making mountains. Seamanship and time on the bridge and simulators. That is what all these young OOD need. Lots of it. I would have them stand port and starboard bridge duty until they acted like qualified underway OOD. Seamanship takes time.

          • William Blankinship

            You are right again. The issues I mentioned are just an old man wishing things would not change. Train and more training is the answer, be tough and demanding. Now I do have some of the same feeling as some of the posts below . The dinosaur in me dies hard fits me also 🙂 Wildbill

  • Ser Arthur Dayne

    As a person with no stake in this and merely looking at it from an outside, hopefully-objective way, it seems like initially, *especially* after the second collision, *EVERYBODY* in the Navy, country, world, etc. wanted the people in command/in control of the ships absolutely punished, put on a spit over a fire, roasted and ripped apart etc. And then some time went by, slowly, reversal of the process, and suddenly it was “let’s just make this go away quickly and quietly and as painlessly as possible and with minimal friction”. Has to be more to it then meets the eye. Just my pair of pennies.

  • old guy

    My feelings on this are harsh. The least charge that they should have been tried for was negligent homicide, and, lame excuses like the Navy regs not specifically requiring prosecution fits our new “politically correct” stance. If you want the name, you must play the game. if convicted a broken sword, loss of all benefits, and stricken from USN records. The guilty have no right to a cover up to save Navy’s face. The sailors’ deaths cannot be “dropped”. This is a black mark on the Navy, exacerbated by this shameful action.

    • Epictetus

      “Ultimate responsibility” comes from Navy Regulations – that is fact, not a “politically correct” stance. If one works for Google (or any company) and violates that company’s policies, they are held administratively responsible and possibly fired. That does not imply criminal misconduct. The fact that lives were tragically lost does not automatically make the position of CO criminally responsible for mistakes made by their subordinates. I understand that this is a very emotional issue for most of us who have served, but it doesn’t change the fact that criminal responsibility, especially for something like negligent homicide, is a high threshold that requires legal, vice traditional, as the burden of proof for conviction. There’s no conspiracy here – it’s simply that the prosecutors realized that a negligent homicide changes was extraordinarily unlikely to stick given the circumstances.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Two girls weren’t speaking (OOD Lt. Coppock & TAO Lt. Combs), so sailors died. How bad is that?

    • CaptainParker

      Shame on you…you are being a misogynist. More diversity and inclusion training for you.

      • publius_maximus_III

        The dinosaur in me dies hard, Capitano.

        • CaptainParker

          Don’t feel bad…I oink with the best of them.

      • pismopal

        My dates of service in naval and police work allowed me to dodge the bullet of gender diversity. Thank you Lord!

    • William Blankinship

      I could see that happening Hope not the case here.

    • Belle O’Brine

      Two facts; 1. CDR Benson had been XO of Fitzgerald for 2 years, 2. CDR Benson willingly accepted command of the vessel as a “fleet up.”
      The Fitzgerald crew was well and truly his. He had been responsible for onboard training for a long time, including that of the OOD and TAO. He should have had deep knowledge of ship and crew readiness. The XO, who has already been found guilty of negligence, had been on board for only 2 months. If CDR Benson was worried about lack of training and support from big Navy, why did he chose to go to sleep and allow his XO to sleep at the same time?

  • publius_maximus_III

    Search on the following string:

    Tip: Pentagon Covering Up Fact That Female Officers Nearly Sank Navy Ship

    (Note: The fix is in.)

  • Fred the Head

    Political correctness is destroying USN.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    ‘Homicide’ by definition is a planned event. Nobody planned this. Those whose careers are now wrecked deserve that. Reading about some aspects of the culture onboard this shop leaves one just shaking their head. People not talking to each other because ‘they didn’t get along’. People not trained on vital equipment. The requisite number of personnel not being present. But seeing how those in command and those running the ship at the time of the collision did indeed ‘hazard’ their ship, I think a manslaughter charge is warranted. They screwed up. If I drive my car in a hazardous manner and crash it into someone else and that someone else dies, I will possibly face manslaughter charges. I think they might be warranted here..

    • pismopal

      Just a nitpick…”homicide” is by definition, “ death at the hands of another” and homicide is often justified. Murder is homicide but requires malice aforethought, not necessarily planning.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        True, but WHY one person kills another is absolutely relevant to charging them. 2 drunks in a bar who are strangers to each other getting onto an argument and one bashing the other over his head to the point that he dies has the smallest of chances of resulting in a murder charge. Unless of course there are mitigating circumstances like ‘priors’ involved and whatnot. I see stupidity in this case, not malice.

        • pismopal

          In civil law there is “manslaughter”

          • Chesapeakeguy

            Yes. Have you read all the posts above?

          • pismopal

            I answer the poster with whom I am engaged. I do not research posts to make sure I am not piggybacking. Thanks for the valuable info…

          • Chesapeakeguy

            The point of my question to you has to do with ‘manslaughter’ already having been discussed. Sorry that doing so is a sore point with you..

  • Mark Thomson

    I am Ex Australian Navy, reading the artical left me wondering, busy shipping lanes, at night. No CO and Navigation Officer not on the Bridge? I am pretty sure the should have been.
    What ever happened to keeping a visual look out, that is the resonability of the OOD. SHE is responcable unless vissability is reduced to such an extent that radar is the only option.
    To allow Officers who are responcible to the crew to ensure there safety and a person neglects that responsibility should be held criminally responsible for the in action that was taken.

  • Jack D Ripper

    Whens the last time anyone took any responsibility for anything,,,especially when the girls are concerned,,cant we find lt. Calley to blame? The chain tries to go down not up,,