Attorneys for the former head of the warship Fitzgerald facing homicide charges for his role in the collision that killed seven sailors took a shot across the bow of Navy brass last week, alleging that public remarks made about the former skipper imperil his prospects for a fair trial.
The statement by two Navy attorneys accuse leadership of repeatedly using “public forums to assign guilt, foreclose legitimate defenses, and cast unwarranted aspersions” against Cmdr. Bryce Benson.
It also slams “the Navy’s method of litigating this case through the media and other out-of-court opinions and declarations from senior Navy leaders.”
The statement points to a Navy press release last week regarding Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock’s guilty plea on a dereliction of duty charge for her role in the Fitz collision.
“By pleading guilty today, Lt. j.g. Coppock has accepted responsibility for the role she played in the USS Fitzgerald collision,” the press release states.
Benson’s attorneys, Cmdr. Ben Robertson and Lt. Cmdr. Justin Henderson, allege that language amounts to a “callous implication” that Benson has refused to accept responsibility by not pleading guilty.
Henderson said in an email that the “implication was obvious to any senior Navy leader.”
When asked for further examples of comments they viewed as improper, Henderson pointed to a November press conference where Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said the Navy had found negligence among the commanding officers of the Fitz and John S. McCain, which suffered its own collision in August, killing 10 more sailors.
“With respect to the proximate cause of the collisions, there was nothing outside the commanding officer and the crews’ span of control,” Richardson told reporters in January after a House committee hearing, another example cited by Henderson.
He also referred to comments made by Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran when announcing non-judicial punishment actions against the Fitz’s command triad in August, a few days before the McCain collision.
“Look at what happened here,” he was quoted as saying when asked about the triad’s future career. “It’s going to be pretty hard to recover from this.”
Henderson said these are just a few of many such comments.
Navy officials pushed back on the accusations, saying any earlier administrative actions “are separate and distinct from the ongoing criminal proceedings.”
“The Navy’s public discussion of earlier administrative actions does not imply guilt of (Uniform Code of Military Justice) charges,” Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Day said in an email. “Those accused are always presumed innocent unless proven guilty, and our communication of the status of criminal proceedings have been fact-based and in accordance with service regulations.”
Benson waived his right to an Article 32 hearing this month, which would have reviewed the Navy’s case against Benson and decided whether sufficient evidence existed to court-martial him on negligent homicide and other charges.
Benson chose to skip the hearing to spare surviving families another recital of the grim details of the June 17 collision off the coast of Japan, according to his attorneys’ statement.
“Rather than achieving accountability, the Navy’s strategy harms the very system of justice that is designed to protect Sailors,” the attorneys said in the statement.
Benson was asleep in his quarters when the larger ACX Crystal plowed into the Fitz’s starboard.
Crew had to pry open his door and were greeted by the night sky and Benson clinging to the side of the ship.
He suffered “debilitating injuries” in the event, according to his attorneys.
“A fair court-martial will expose the facts of the collision’s causes and Cmdr. Benson’s actions,” the attorneys said in the statement. “Despite the Navy’s prejudicial public affairs approach, Cmdr. Benson awaits the outcome of his law-bound, fact-finding tribunal, and hopes for a swift and just conclusion to these proceedings.”
No date has been announced for Benson’s court-martial.
Coppock received a punitive letter and pay forfeiture in her sentencing.
As part of a plea deal, she agreed to waive her right to a board that would decide whether she should be separated from the Navy, according to officials.
A joint Article 32 hearing was held for Lt. Natalie Combs and Lt. Irian Woodley to assess whether they will be court-martialed on dereliction of duty and hazarding a vessel charges.
The hearing officer will make a decision in the near future, according to officials.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at email@example.com.