USS Fitzgerald Ex-Skipper Headed To Court-Martial; Negligent Homicide Charge Dropped

Navy Cmdr. Bryce Benson, former commanding officer of the USS Fitzgerald.
Navy photo.

The former captain of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald has been referred to a general court-martial in connection with a deadly 2017 collision that killed seven sailors, but he will not face a charge of negligent homicide.

Cmdr. Bryce Benson was not on the bridge when the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer collided with the container ship ACX Crystal on June 17, 2017. In fact, the destroyer’s captain was asleep in his stateroom at the time, and the collision left him hanging from the side of the ship until he was rescued by the crew.

Benson, who waived his Article 32 hearing on May 21, will face charges of negligent dereliction of duty resulting in death, negligent dereliction of duty, and negligent hazarding of a vessel at his upcoming court-martial, which has not yet been scheduled, the Navy announced on Tuesday.

One specification of negligent homicide and a specification of hazarding a vessel that had been preferred against him earlier were dropped, Task & Purpose has learned.

Benson’s military defense attorneys Lt. Cmdr. Justin C. Henderson and Cmdr. Ben Robertson said on Tuesday that Benson has faith in the military justice system, noting the convening authority Adm. James F. Caldwell had decided not to refer the negligent homicide charge to court-martial.

“The evidence now before Adm. Caldwell was the same evidence that initially caused him to bring a negligent homicide charge against Cmdr. Benson,” the attorneys said in a statement.  “As the government apparently concedes, that charge was not warranted. A fair trial will reveal the remaining charges are likewise unsupported by the facts.”

Retired Marine Lt. Col. Guy Womack, a military attorney not affiliated with the case, has told T&P; Benson stands a good chance of being found innocent at trial.

“There were so many levels of officers and enlisted sailors between him and the rudder of that ship that I think it would be very difficult to prove that the CO in this case was negligent,” Womack said in a May 16 interview. “According to the articles — and I’m certain they are true — there was a regulation telling the officer of the deck and all of the other officers that, ‘If you see something dangerous, tell the CO, maneuver out of harm’s way, sound alarms.’”

The Navy also announced on Tuesday that Lt. Natalie Combs, the tactical action officer at the time of the Fitzgerald’s collision, will face charges of negligent dereliction of duty resulting in death and negligent hazarding of a vessel at a general court-martial.

David Sheldon, Combs’ attorney, said on Tuesday that the Navy had decided to prosecute Combs despite the preliminary hearing officer’s recommendation that she and another officer aboard the Fitzgerald face administrative separation instead of a court-martial.

“While Lt. Combs is obviously very disappointed in the decision of Adm. Caldwell, she nonetheless is resolute in her belief that when the facts are fully presented, she will be exonerated,” Sheldon said in a statement. “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 in the circumstance.”

Meanwhile, all charges were dropped against Lt. Irian Woodley, the Fitzgerald’s surface warfare coordinator, who will be recommended to show cause for retention before an administrative board of inquiry, a Navy news release says.


UPDATE: This story was updated on June 19 with comments from Benson and Combs' defense attorneys.

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