The Navy’s decision to move forward with possible criminal charges against officers who oversaw two destroyers involved in catastrophic collisions last year sets up a potential spectacle that has not occurred in a generation: The court-martial of a ship’s captain in the death of his own sailors.
Cmdr. Bryce Benson and Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez are among a handful of Navy officers who face charges of negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and hazarding a vessel in connection with the collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain, the service announced Tuesday. Combined, the accidents killed 17 sailors, most of whom drowned as they faced an onslaught of water in ship compartments that were ripped open by other vessels.
Deadly collisions involving Navy vessels are rare, and often embarrassing and politically charged afterward, according to a review of past cases. In the handful that have occurred since World War II, commanding officers have been convicted in some cases and acquitted in others. The service also has considered court-martialing skippers, only to ultimately decide that was not warranted.
The new cases are expected to proceed with what the military calls an Article 32 hearing in or near Washington, though their timing is not yet clear, said Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Day, a Navy spokesman. An officer or officers will weigh the merits of the cases, and make a recommendation to a senior commander about whether to pursue criminal charges.
Bryan McGrath, a retired naval officer and former destroyer captain, said he finds it unlikely that the Navy will be able to prove negligent homicide in the new cases, and ultimately may not even pursue the charge. But he said it is clear from the investigations that “gross professional negligence” was involved in both collisions, and that the American public and the Navy have an interest in judicial proceedings going forward to test how the service sees the burdens of being a commander.
“I think that the concept of command and responsibility is incredibly important in the Navy,” said McGrath, who is now the deputy director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower. “It is ultimately what gives crews the confidence that they need in their commanding officer to follow him or her without question when the stakes are high.”
In the case of the Fitzgerald, Benson and three other more junior officers face charges for the June 17 crash, which killed seven sailors off the coast of Japan. An investigation found that the collision occurred after watch teams disregarded established ways of contacting other ships and required safety precautions, resulting in the larger shipping vessel, the MV ACX Crystal, ripping open its hull. Benson and other senior members of the crew were not on the bridge at the time of the incident, despite the ship being in a crowded shipping lane.
The McCain collision occurred Aug. 21 off the coast of Singapore, killing 10 sailors. Sanchez was on the bridge at the time, but the Navy found that the collision occurred “primarily from complacency, overconfidence and lack of procedural compliance.” Sailors didn’t know how to steer the ship out of trouble in the moments before the accident with the larger oil tanker Alnic MC, the investigation found.
The Navy has not court-martialed a ship captain following a deadly mishap since the destroyer USS Kinkaid and the Panamanian-flagged freighter M/V Kota Petani collided in the Straits of Malacca on Nov. 12, 1989, killing one naval officer aboard the Kinkaid and injuring 17 sailors.
In that case, the ship’s captain, Cmdr. John Cochrane, faced charges of dereliction of duty and negligence, but was acquitted after defense attorneys argued that he could not be held criminally liable because his crew never informed him that the ship was in danger. Like Benson on the Fitzgerald, he was asleep at the time of the crash.
In a more recent case involving loss of life, the submarine USS Greenville collided with the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru as it surfaced off the coast of Hawaii on Feb. 9, 2001. The ship sank within minutes, killing four high school students, two teachers and three crew members.
The Navy ultimately determined that the presence of 16 civilian guests on the submarine at the time was a distraction, but decided that a court-martial was not warranted. The submarine’s captain, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, was instead found guilty of dereliction of duty and negligent hazarding at an administrative hearing known as an admiral’s mast, and allowed to retire with full benefits.
Lawrence Brennan, a retired Navy lawyer and law professor at Fordham University, said he sees similarities between the modern cases and the Nov. 22, 1975, collision of the guide-missile cruiser USS Belknap and the much larger aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy. In that case, eight service members were killed, 48 were injured and the Belknap suffered catastrophic damage. Jet fuel aboard the Kennedy poured onto the Belknap and ignited, burning down the smaller ship’s tower-like superstructure, according to a Navy investigation.
The Navy court-martialed Capt. Walker R. Shafer, the captain of the Belknap, and Capt. William A. Gureck, the captain of the Kennedy, and acquitted both. The service then found the officer of the deck on the Belknap, Lt. (j.g.) Kenneth M. Knull, guilty of negligence and disregarding a standing order, but didn’t impose a punishment, the New York Times reported at that time.
James Stavridis, who retired as a four-star admiral in 2013, said the Navy’s decisions so far show that it wants to hold service members accountable for what has happened. But he acknowledged that homicide charges in a collision case are “very rare,” and said that the standard for a conviction will be high.
People involved in the Fitzgerald and McCain incidents “appear to have made significant errors in judgment and will have to face a trial and the consequences if convicted,” said Stavridis, who is now dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University.
But there’s an additional benefit, he added. Carrying out judicial actions now, he said, will hold a high standard of accountability in future disasters, whether they involve aircraft, submarines or Navy SEAL operations.
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