A military judge has ruled that statements made by the Navy’s top two flag officers, about a deadly 2017 destroyer collision, constituted apparent unlawful command influence — but not enough to merit a dismissal of the case.
The court-martial of Cmdr. Bryce Benson, the USS Fitzgerald’s former commanding officer, will go on.
Seven sailors were killed June 17, 2017, when the Fitzgerald and a commercial vessel, the ACX Crystal, collided in the dark of night in busy waters off the coast of Japan. Benson is accused of two counts of dereliction of duty through neglect and improper hazarding of a vessel through negligence. A further charge of negligent homicide has been dropped.
In a ruling shared with Stars and Stripes, the judge, Capt. J.T. Stephens, found that the chief and vice chief of naval operations have stated on multiple occasions that as commanding officer, Benson was responsible for — or guilty of negligence in — the collision, and those statements “ignored the accused’s presumption of innocence.”