Navy Drops Homicide Charge Against USS Fitzgerald's CO

The damaged USS Fitzgerald returns to port, Yokosuka, Japan, April 2017 (USN)

By The Maritime Executive 06-19-2018 05:44:48

On Tuesday, the U.S. Navy announced that it will drop a charge of negligent homicide against Commander Bryce Benson, the commanding officer of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald at the time of her collision with the merchant vessel ACX Crystal. Cmdr. Benson still faces lesser charges of hazarding a vessel and dereliction of duty resulting in death.

Charges of negligent homicide against two junior officers from the Fitzgerald's Combat Information Center, Lt. Natalie Combs and Lt. Irian Woodley, have also been dropped. Lt. Combs still faces lesser charges. 

In an earlier proceeding in May, Lt. j.g. Sarah B. Coppock, the Fitzgerald's officer of the deck at the time of the collision, pled guilty to dereliction of duty in a plea agreement, avoiding a charge of negligent homicide. In a court-martial hearing, Lt. j.g. Coppock was sentenced to a letter of reprimand and the forfeiture of half her pay for three months.

The Fitzgerald collided with the merchant vessel ACX Crystal in the early hours of June 17, 2017 south of Yokosuka, Japan. In the aftermath, seven sailors drowned and three were injured. Fitzgerald herself is out of commission for an extended repair period in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The Navy concluded that the Fitzgerald's bridge team and CIC team bore significant responsibility for the collision. 

Cmdr. Benson was charged with hazarding a vessel, dereliction of duty and negligent homicide, according to the Navy. Cmdr. Jessie L. Sanchez, the commander of the destroyer USS John S. McCain, faced similar charges for his role in the McCain's deadly collision with the Alnic MC off Singapore; however, the homicide charge against Cmdr. Sanchez was dropped in May. 

The Navy's accountability actions extended beyond courts-martial. Sanchez and Benson's superiors at Destroyer Squadron 15, Task Force 70, 7th Fleet, Pacific Fleet and Naval Surface Forces have since been removed, passed over or encouraged to retire. The service is also attempting to correct deficiencies in manning and training that it has identified as underlying factors in the accidents. Former 7th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin and the Government Accountability Office contend that these factors were known to the Navy in advance of the accident voyages.

Fitzgerald's state of readiness prior to the collision figures prominently in the defense for at least one of the ship's former officers. "The Fitzgerald had systemic problems with its equipment and training - to single [out] this young woman, who has served honorably and with distinction, for prosecution is very troubling," said David Sheldon, counsel for Lt. Combs.