April 11 (UPI) — The U.S. Navy has dropped all criminal charges against the top two officers of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald after a collision with a merchant vessel and instead will issue letters of censure.
Former Fitzgerald commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson and tactical action officer Lt. Natalie Combs were facing court-martial trials tied to the fatal June 17, 2017, collision, but will receive the letters instead, the U.S. Navy announced Wednesday night.
“The Navy will always keep the lost sailors and their families in its thoughts and prayers,” the Navy said Wednesday.
Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer made his decision based on the recommendation of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson.
“This decision is in the best interest of the Navy, the families of the Fitzgerald sailors and the procedural rights of the accused officers,” the Navy said. “Both officers were previously dismissed from their jobs and received non-judicial punishment.”
The families of the seven sailors who died in the collision were notified in a letter that stated “the cases are being dismissed for legal reasons that impede the continued prosecution of either officer,” USNI News reported.
The Navy had limited options in finding a consolidated disposition authority to oversee Benson’s case because Director of Naval Reactors Adm. Frank Caldwell was disqualified. The judge ruled Caldwell “abdicated his neutral role in favor of a prosecutorial role” and made prejudicial statements in other cases.
The naval officers eligible to pursue charges against Benson were the chief of naval operations and vice chief of naval operations.
The ruling made it “highly improbable” that the case would move forward, retired Navy Capt. Lawrence B. Brennan, a legal expert, told Stars and Stripes.
“The announcement of this disposition completes a process that never included a trial of the facts,” Lt. Cmdr. Justin Henderson said to USNI News. “Despite a relentless messaging campaign insisting ships’ commanding officers are strictly liable for all operational risks, the Navy never tested that concept in court. For good reason: it’s untenable, legally and factually.”
In a late Wednesday statement to USNI, Combs’ attorney, David Sheldon, said his client performed her duties to the best of her ability.
“LT Combs is obviously relieved that the charges will be dismissed,” he said. “She stands resolute in her belief that she did all she could have to perform her duties and was prepared to defend her honor. Today, she joins her shipmates in grieving the loss of these truly wonderful sailors.”
Deck officer Lt. Junior Grade Sarah Coppock pleaded guilty to one count of negligence in a court-martial in May 2018. Surface warfare coordinator Lt. Irian Woodley was recommended not to face trial by a military judge and instead an administrative board of inquiry opted not to separate him from service.
The Navy said it is working to prevent further incidents of this type.
“The comprehensive program to improve Navy readiness and training, to do everything possible to ensure that accidents like this will not recur, remains on track,” the Navy said. “The Navy continues to strive to achieve and maintain a climate of operational excellence.”
Seven sailors died aboard the Fitzgerald when it collided with the Philippine-flagged container ship ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan on June 17,2017.
Crew fatigue was a factor in the incident.
Two months later on Aug. 21, the USS John McCain, another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, ran into a merchant ship east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, killing 10 sailors. The two top commanders on the vessel were relieved of duty.
The Navy concluded both accidents were “avoidable” and caused by multiple human errors.
The Government Accountability Office in a 163-page report released in December 2017 found the McCain and the Fitzgerald had several expired training certifications and lapsed requirements — some for more than two years.
The Fitzgerald went to Dry Dock 4 at Fleet Activities Yokosuka in Japan after the accident.
In November 2017, the destroyer was further damaged by two punctures to its hull during the loading process to Dockwise heavy-lift ship MV Transshelf to Huntington Ingalls Industries’ shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss.