The Navy will no longer pursue negligent homicide charges against Cmdr. Bryce Benson, who commanded the destroyer Fitzgerald when it collided with a merchant vessel just more than a year ago, killing seven sailors.
Service officials also announced Tuesday that two of the Fitz’s junior officers will not face a negligent homicide charge in connection to the June 17, 2017, catastrophe.
These developments mark the service’s latest reconsideration of negligent homicide charges in the case of the Fitz and the John S. McCain collision, which happened less than two months later and killed another 10 sailors.
The call was made by Adm. James Caldwell, who was appointed last year to oversee all disciplinary matters regarding the Fitz and the McCain.
Benson’s attorneys said Tuesday that this about-face shows the negligent homicide charge “was not warranted.”
“The evidence now before Admiral Caldwell was the same evidence that initially caused him to bring a negligent homicide charge against Commander Benson,” the attorneys said in a statement. “A fair trial will reveal the remaining charges are likewise unsupported by the facts.”
Attorneys for Cmdr. Bryce Benson said last week that public comments by Navy leadership have assigned guilt and cast "unwarranted aspersions" against the former skipper.
He has decided that Benson will face negligent dereliction of duty resulting in death, negligent dereliction of duty and negligent hazarding of a vessel charges at a general court-martial, according to a Navy statement.
Benson waived his right last month to a preliminary Article 32 hearing, where an officer would have reviewed the prosecution’s case and recommended to Caldwell whether Benson should be court-martialed.
His attorneys torched leadership at that time, claiming that public comments by Navy brass had imperiled the former skipper’s right to a fair trial.
Navy officials declined to comment, citing the ongoing nature of the proceedings.
Benson was injured when the hulking ACX Crystal plowed into the Fitz’s right side, directly smashing into his quarters while he slept.
Sailors pried open his door and were met by the night sky and Benson clinging to the side of the ship.
The Navy also announced Tuesday that two junior officers will not face negligent homicide charges for their roles in the Fitz collision.
Lt. Natalie Combs will still be court-martialed on negligent dereliction of duty resulting in death and negligent hazarding of a vessel charges, but not for negligent homicide.
She was serving as the tactical action officer, or TAO, at the time of the collision, and oversaw the ship’s weapons, propulsion and sensors.
Her civilian attorney, David Sheldon, said earlier this month that the Article 32 officer had recommended she not go to trial and instead go before an administrative separation board.
Combs “is obviously very disappointed” in Caldwell’s decision to still go forward with a court-martial, Sheldon said in a statement Tuesday.
One year after losing seven of their shipmates when the Fitz collided with a merchant vessel, some crew say they remain traumatized and wonder if they are ready to get underway again.
“She nonetheless is resolute in her belief that when the facts are fully presented, she will be exonerated,” Sheldon said. “The blame in this case is widespread. The FITZGERALD had systemic problems with its equipment and training—to single this young woman, who has served honorably and with distinction, for prosecution is very troubling.”
Lt. Irian Woodley went before an Article 32 alongside Combs last month, but Navy officials said Tuesday that all charges against him were dismissed.
Woodley will still have to go before an administrative board, however, to show why he should be allowed to stay in the Navy, officials said.
Tuesday’s developments marked the Navy’s latest reconsideration of negligent homicide charges in connection to the two collisions.
In January, officials announced the Navy would pursue negligent homicide charges against Benson and the McCain’s skipper at the time of that Aug. 21 collision, Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez.
A year after seven sailors died aboard the warship Fitzgerald, some families are angry at how the Navy has handled the tragedy.
Sanchez was court-martialed last month and pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty.
As part of a plea deal, he received a letter of reprimand and will have to forfeit $6,000 in pay over three months.
Sanchez will also put in for retirement as part of the deal.
Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock was the Fitz’s officer the deck, or OOD, at the time of the collision. She pleaded guilty to a dereliction charge at court-martial last month.