The Navy has quietly dropped its pursuit of negligent homicide charges against the former commanding officer of a warship that collided with a tanker near Singapore last summer, killing 10 sailors.
Earlier this year, the service announced it would seek negligent homicide charges against Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, who commanded the destroyer John S. McCain on Aug. 21 when it collided with a larger vessel in busy west Pacific waters, crushing or drowning 10 shipmates.
The January announcement stated Sanchez would face negligent homicide, hazarding a vessel and dereliction of duty charges.
But in an official update last week, the service said Sanchez would now face only dereliction charges at a special court-martial set to begin Friday.
That development was tacked on to a statement initially focused on the former skipper of the warship Fitzgerald, Cmdr. Bryce Benson.
The Fitz collided with a merchant ship off Japan less than two months before the McCain disaster, killing seven.
Benson still faces negligent homicide charges and has waived his right to a preliminary Article 32 hearing that would have assessed whether the Navy’s case was strong enough to go to trial.
The Navy officer who Navy officials said is Sanchez’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment this week.
Trying Sanchez in a special court-martial instead of general court-martial suggests the Navy “was not intent on obtaining serious punishment if the CO was convicted,” according to Lawrence Brennan, a retired Navy captain, military attorney and professor at the Fordham University School of Law in New York.
Special courts-martial, which can feature trial by a judge or jury, have limited punishment power, he said.
“Essentially it is a misdemeanor court and cannot award confinement or dismissal of a naval officer,” Brennan said in an email. “The punishment will be limited to financial sanctions and lesser punishments.”
Naval officers have traditionally only been tried via general courts-martial, even if there was a deal for sentencing limits that would align with the less-severe special court-martial, he said.
“The decision to try most of the cases in both collisions at Special Courts suggests a message that may be interpreted as the deaths of 17 sailors and half a billion dollars worth of damage only warrants a misdemeanor,” said Brennan. “The timing of this trial at the start of Memorial Day weekend is questionable.”
Navy spokesman Cmdr. William Speaks declined to comment Wednesday on what had changed in Sanchez’s case.
Speaks referred to a Judge Advocate General regulation that prohibits public release of information regarding “the possibility of a plea of guilty to any offense charged or to a lesser offense or any negotiation or any offer to negotiate respecting a plea of guilty.”
The McCain’s former second-in-command, Cmdr. Jessie Sanchez, was administratively disciplined for his role in the collision and charged with dereliction in February.
Sanchez, who is no relation to Alfredo Sanchez, received a punitive letter of reprimand.
Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jeffery D. Butler of the McCain will appear before a summary court-martial Thursday on dereliction charges as well, according to Navy officials.
A junior Fitz officer who was navigating the destroyer at the time of the June 17 collision pleaded guilty at her own special court-martial earlier this month.
Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock was sentenced to pay forfeiture and a punitive letter. She also agreed to waive her right to a board that would weigh whether she should be kicked out of the Navy.
The Navy has refused to release the full investigations into the Fitz and McCain. But information released stated that Sanchez was on the bridge when his ship collided with the tanker.
Benson was asleep in his quarters at the time of the Fitz collision, according to Navy accounts.
Sanchez’s dereliction of duty charge sheet accuses the officer of failing to ensure the McCain’s safe navigation as it was his duty to ensure “a proper watch was set for transiting a high-density contact environment.”
The McCain was entering the Straits of Malacca that morning, one of the world’s busiest waterways, when confusion erupted over a perceived steering failure.
The charge sheet also alleges that Sanchez failed to follow standing orders regarding responses to a ship system failure, all of which contributed to the deaths of Chief Electronics Technician Nathan Findley, Chief Interior Communications Electrician Abraham Lopez, Electronics Technician 1st Class Kevin Bushell, Information Systems 1st Class Corey Ingram, Electronics Technician 2nd Class Jacob Drake, Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Timothy Eckels, Electronics Technician 2nd Class Dustin Doyon, Electronics Technician 2nd Class John Hoagland, Interior Communications Electrician 2nd Class Logan Palmer and Electronics Technician 2nd Class Kenneth Smith.
The Navy may have walked back Sanchez’s negligent homicide charge because they felt they couldn’t make that case, according to Eugene R. Fidell, a civilian attorney specializing in military law.
Opting for a less-severe special court-martial could mean the authorities “sort of caught their breath in the cold light of day and thought it’d be overreaching, or they couldn’t prove it,” Fidell said.
“That’s a very good reason not to pursue a general court-martial, if you don’t think you can prove the higher charges,” he said. “I have to assume that, at least to some extent, people who are defending the CO proved to be persuasive.”
Benson’s attorney blasted Navy brass this month, accusing Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran of unlawful command influence via their public statements about the collision.
Such statements will make it harder for Benson to get a fair trial, the Navy attorneys allege.
Navy officials have announced no date for Benson’s court-martial.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.