Damage to the guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald is seen as the vessel is berthed at its mother port in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo, on June 18, 2017. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)
The Navy officers facing criminal charges in the deadly collision of the USS Fitzgerald have taken divergent paths, with some accepting plea deals and others challenging both the allegations against them and the service’s actions.
Seven U.S. sailors died after the June 17 collision ripped open the keel of the ship and compartments inside rapidly flooded. The 505-foot guided-missile destroyer off the southern coast of Japan hit the MV ACX Crystal, a larger container ship flagged from the Philippines. It was the first of two deadly collisions by a destroyer last year; the USS John S. McCain lost 10 sailors in another maritime disaster Aug. 21 off the coast of Singapore.
Four officers, including Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the ship’s captain, face criminal charges in the Fitzgerald case. Benson is accused of negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and hazarding a vessel, and recently waived his right to an Article 32 hearing, a public airing of the facts that had been scheduled for May 21 at the Washington Navy Yard.
Benson’s attorneys, Cmdr. Ben Robertson and Lt. Cmdr. Justin C. Henderson, issued a statement Tuesday evening that accused the Navy of taking a “prejudicial public affairs approach” in the case and repeatedly using “public forums to assign guilt, foreclose legitimate defenses and cast unwarranted aspersions.” They cited as an example a May 8 news release stating that a junior officer on the Fitzgerald, Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock, had pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty at court-martial.
“By pleading guilty today, Lt. j.g. Coppock has accepted responsibility for the role she played in the USS Fitzgerald collision,” the Navy statement said, in part. “In addition to the court-martial conviction, Lt. j.g. Coppock was sentenced to forfeitures of one half-month’s pay for three months and punitive letter.”
Benson’s attorneys said the news release contained “the callous implication that by declining to plead guilty at court-martial, Cmdr. Benson refuses to ‘accept responsibility.’ Nothing could be further from the truth.” The news release about Coppock did not mention Benson or any other officer by name. It stated that the Navy “has taken and continues to take fair and decisive action after the catastrophic loss of seven shipmates.”
A Navy spokeswoman, Lt. Christina Helenaleka Sears, said Wednesday that the news release about Coppock was based in fact and followed regulations laid out in a Navy legal manual.
Benson’s attorneys said their client continues to grieve the sailors he lost and is still recuperating from his own injuries. He was in his stateroom when the ship collided with the ACX Crystal, but his crew never alerted him that the ship was in danger, in “direct contravention of his standing orders,” they said. Benson waived his right to a hearing next week in an effort to limit “any unnecessary recitation of events and circumstances surrounding the tragic collision.”
At least one other officer on duty during the Fitzgerald’s collision, Navy Lt. Natalie Combs, also has set out to fight the allegations. She faces charges of negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and hazarding a vessel. Her civilian attorney, David Sheldon, has argued that the Fitzgerald wasn’t ready to operate at the time. Radar aboard the ship was not functioning properly at the time of the collision, according to the Navy’s investigation.
“The Navy knew that, and the responsibility lies not just with the commanding officer and the executive officer, but all the way to the top echelons of the Navy,” Sheldon said in a phone interview.
Another officer, Navy Lt. Irian Woodley, faced a combined hearing with Combs earlier this month. He has not yet entered a plea in his case.
Separately, the service is soon moving ahead with legal action in connection with the McCain collision. Chief Petty Officer Jeffrey D. Butler, is scheduled to appear before a summary court-martial May 24 to face an allegation of dereliction of duty, and the former commanding officer of the ship, Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, will face the same charge May 25.