There has been a lot of press recently about the court-martial for the former Skipper of the USS JOHN S. MCCAIN that occurred at the Washington Navy Yard on May 25, 2018. The MCCAIN collided with another ship on August 21, 2017 off Singapore, which resulted in the loss of 10 Sailors. CDR Alfredo Sanchez (ironically both the CO and XO of the ship had the last name Sanchez) was originally charged with Negligent Homicide, Hazarding a Vessel, and Dereliction of Duty, all in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The public relations campaign following the MCCAIN collision and FITZGERALD collision, followed by the preferral of “homicide charges” against Sanchez and others, created the impression with the both the families and the public that those at fault for the collisions would receive serious punishment such as brig time.
Sanchez’s court-martial, however, showed the opposite. Sanchez pleaded guilty at Special Court-Martial to a violation of Article 92, UCMJ, Dereliction of Duty, though it’s unclear based on media reports whether it was negligent or willful dereliction (though it wouldn’t matter for an officer at a Special Court-Martial). He received forfeiture of pay and a letter of reprimand. More importantly, a punitive discharge, reduction in rank, and brig time weren’t even on the table. The law prohibits officers from receiving brig time or a dismissal at a Special Court-Martial, and an officer can never be demoted at a court-martial. So, Sanchez knew going in to his sentencing hearing that he would be walking out a Commander, keeping his retirement, and sleeping in his own bed (or at least that of a Navy Gateway Inn) that night.
So what’s the end result for Sanchez? He agreed to waive his right to a Board of Inquiry. That likely includes a pay grade determination. Since he has over 20 years of service, he’ll be retired, but could be retired at a lower pay grade at the discretion of the Secretary of the Navy. He’ll also likely receive a discharge that is not Honorable – I suspect he’ll receive a General (Under Honorable Conditions), or perhaps an Other Than Honorable. These discharges may have some impact on his ability to obtain certain benefits administered by the VA. Of course, he’ll also have his conviction for a purely military offense (a misdemeanor with no civilian equivalent).
Was this a good result for Sanchez? Clearly the Navy did not have a strong case against him or the family members of those lost opposed a more serious punishment because Sanchez is walking away with his retirement in tact, and without any brig time or a serious conviction on his record. For Sanchez, he now has certainty in his future, which to many defendants is priceless.
Attorney Patrick Korody is a former active duty Navy JAG who was certified by the Judge Advocate General as a Military Justice Specialist. He practices world-wide as a civilian military defense attorney.