Can a Naval commanding officer be held criminally-responsible for failed “operational decisions” that result in a sailor’s death
Court-martial defense attorneys may be gearing up to fight a battle the military justice system very rarely sees within the Navy–criminally negligent homicide charges against commanding officers. To put it in perspective, only two commanding officers have faced and been convicted at court-martial for “failed operational decisions” in the past 40 years– and the last of those convictions was 30 years ago.
Generally, commanding officers are not criminally court-martialed, but rather face military administrative action for non-criminal misconduct charges.
But the Navy is considering criminally charging the commanding officers of two ships in the death of their own sailors. Why these officers? Why now?
The proposed negligent homicide charges against the commanding officers come following two separate catastrophic naval vessel accidents last summer in which a combined 17 sailors died (10 in one accident and 7 in the other) and several others were injured. Most of the dead were reportedly drowned by water rushing into their compartments after the vessels were sliced open upon impact.
Phrases such as “poor judgment”, “poor leadership”, and “loss of confidence in the ability to command” have been tossed about with respect to some of the commanding officers and crew blamed in the collisions. In accordance with its usual way of handling such incidents, the commanders and crew involved were subject to administrative actions and nonjudicial punishment. The commanders—one of whom was reportedly asleep and not awakened or made aware of any problems by the crew– were relieved of their commands.
There are many actions and devices allowing for reprimand under
But the latest apparent move to also pursue criminal charges may be due to pressure from the public, lawmakers, and bereaved military families seeking answers and accountability from commanding officers for the recent and politically-embarrassing string of naval accidents including the two at hand, and two other recent prior accidents. Don’t be a scapegoat.
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