Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson and other top Navy officials exerted “undue command influence” that could bias a fair trial for the Navy captain accused of causing a fatal at-sea collision last summer, a military judge has ruled.
Adm. Richardson and other top Navy brass potentially violated the Uniform Military Code of Justice governing military trials by making repeated statements, both in public and private, on the presumed guilt of Navy Cmdr. Bryce Benson and his role in the deadly June 2017 incident involving the USS Fitzgerald, according to recently released court records and other documents obtained by The Washington Times.
These statements, most notably by Adm. Richardson and Adm. William F. Moran, vice chief of naval operations, were made before official charges were levied against Cmdr. Benson, the presiding military judge, Capt. J.T. Stephens, wrote in his late-December ruling.
“There is no dispute that [Adm. Richardson and Adm. Moran] made the statements, or approved the press releases, related to the accused’s court-martial,” the judge wrote.
“Statements repeatedly suggested the accused’s guilt and highlighted facts specific to the accused’s case in media forums [and] the statements could have potentially … tainted the fact-finding responsibility of any potential members,” Capt. Stephens added in the decision memorandum.
But the judge stopped short of accepting a defense motion to dismiss the case, ruling that the public statements did not affect the original decision last year to bring legal action against the commander. The court said it would allow Cmdr. Benson’s defense team the right to closely question potential jurors to ensure that the top commanders’ comments had not influenced them.
Cmdr. Benson pleaded not guilty in July to charges of negligence and hazarding a vessel, tied to the 2017 collision between the USS Fitzgerald and a Philippine-flagged shipping vessel near the Japanese coast. The collision left seven sailors dead.
Navy prosecutors opted not to charge Cmdr. Benson with negligent homicide as a result of the collision. Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock, the officer of the deck aboard the Fitzgerald during the incident, pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty in May.
In a draft brief seen by The Times, Cmdr. Benson’s defense team made the case for a full dismissal of the charges.
“Specific comments and/or opinions about the accused’s guilt or innocence cannot be released when an accused is facing court-martial, especially when those comments are made by the Navy’s top two flag officers,” the defense team argued.
Adm. Richardson and Adm. Moran “knew that they should not discuss the specifics of this case, yet they repeatedly did,” according to a draft version of the motion obtained by The Times.
In the weeks and months after the deadly incidents involving the Fitzgerald and McCain, Adm. Richardson and other senior service brass publicly discussed the causes of the Fitzgerald incident and a collision months later involving the USS McCain that killed 10 sailors. During press briefings and congressional testimony, Adm. Richardson and others repeatedly claimed the collisions, particularly the one involving the Fitzgerald, were likely results of negligence by commanding officers. The judge singled out a Nov. 2, 2017, press briefing that Adm. Richardson held in which he told reporters that “we found the [commanding officers] were at fault, the executive officers were at fault” in the Fitzgerald incident.
Originally set to start later this month, the court-martial will likely be delayed until at least May, Stars and Stripes reported.