Commanders at time of fatal ship collisions charged with homicide

Commanders at time of fatal ship collisions charged with homicide
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The Navy is filing negligent homicide charges against the former commanding officers of two guided missile destroyers involved in separate collisions over the summer that killed 17 sailors, the service announced Tuesday.

The charges will be presented at what’s known in the military justice system as an Article 32 hearing, which will decide whether the officers will face courts-martial.

In June, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship southwest of Japan, killing seven sailors. In August, the USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, killing 10 sailors.

A Navy report called the crashes preventable and the result of “multiple failures.”

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Several officers have been relieved from duty in the wake of the incidents, including then-Fitzgerald commanding officer Cmdr. Bryce Benson and then-McCain commanding officer Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez.

Benson, two unnamed lieutenants from the Fitzgerald and one unnamed lieutenant junior grade from the ship are facing charges including dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and negligent homicide, according to the statement from Navy spokesman Capt. Greg Hicks.

Sanchez is facing charges of dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and negligent homicide, while an unnamed chief petty officer from the McCain is facing a dereliction of duty charge, Hicks added.

The decision to file charges was made by Adm. James Caldwell after “careful deliberation,” Hicks said. Caldwell, the head of Naval Reactors, was tapped in October to be the so-called Consolidated Disposition Authority to oversee remaining disciplinary actions stemming from the incidents.

“The announcement of an Article 32 hearing and referral to a court-martial is not intended to and does not reflect a determination of guilt or innocence related to any offenses,” Hicks said. “All individuals alleged to have committed misconduct are entitled to a presumption of innocence.”

In addition to the charges announced Tuesday, administrative actions are being taken against members of both crews including nonjudicial punishment for four Fitzgerald and four McCain crewmembers, Hicks said.

Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson are scheduled to testify before a joint House Armed Services Committee subcommittee hearing Thursday on the investigations into the collisions.