US Navy drops charges against officers in USS Fitzgerald crash

The U.S. Navy is dropping criminal charges against the former commanding officer of the guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald and a former crew member for their roles in a deadly 2017 collision.

At the recommendation of Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson, the Navy Secretary Richard Spencer will instead censure former Fitzgerald commanding officer Commander Bryce Benson and former crew member Lieutenant Natalie Combs, the Navy said on Wednesday, April 10.

“Richardson will also withdraw and dismiss charges in the general courts-martial against the two officers,” the Navy said.

USS Fitzgerald Commanding Officer's Stateroom damage – external
Damage to the Commanding Officer’s Stateroom of the USS Fitzgerald which collided with the container ship ACX Crystal on June 17, 2017. Image: US Navy

Seven of the USS Fitzgerald’s crew members were killed on June 17, 2017 when the destroyer collided with the container ship ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan.

The Navy later found that the crew made numerous mistakes ahead of the collision, with sailors assigned to keep watch for hazards at one point “literally looking the other way” and ignoring three ships on the right side of the destroyer.

Benson, the commanding officer, only found out about the collision when the Crystal broke through the ship’s exterior, entering his room, according to a 2017 Navy report.

In May 2018, a junior officer, Lieutenant (junior grade) Sarah Coppock, pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty through neglect. As the Officer of the Deck on the night of the collision, Coppock acknowledged that she failed to report ship contacts and did not alert the crew of an imminent collision.

Benson and Combs were initially charged with negligent homicide and dereliction of duty resulting in death. The negligent homicide charges were dropped last year.

“This decision is in the best interest of the Navy, the families of the Fitzgerald Sailors, and the procedural rights of the accused officers. Both officers were previously dismissed from their jobs and received non-judicial punishment,” the Navy said Wednesday.

The cases were dismissed “for legal reasons that impede the continued prosecution of either officer,” USNI News reported on Wednesday, citing a letter sent to the families of the seven sailors who died.

USNI reported that Director of Naval Reactions Admiral Frank Caldwell had been disqualified from overseeing the commander’s case after he showed more than once that he thought Benson had a direct responsibility for the crash. The Navy struggled to find a new authority to oversee the case, according to the report, and Benson’s lawyer believed that the Navy would have failed to prove criminal wrong-doing in a trial.

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