Saturday, January 20, 2007

No Justice for Jessica, instead a white wash!

Is Vice Admiral Charles Wurster, Pacific Area Commander correct when he says that the three senior officers assigned to the Coast Guard icebreaker CGC Healy during a fatal diving incident in the Arctic last year that resulted in the deaths of Lt. Jessica Hill and BM2 Steve Duque deserved nonjudicial punishment rather than facing criminal charges?

No, Admiral Wurster is absolutely wrong, and he knows it. He knew it months ago. That is the reason why he chose to conduct the non-judicial punishment (NJP) the day before the Final Report was released. He anticipated a public outcry. He was afraid of where it would lead if the public demanded a more appropriate punishment. There would be shouts of "white wash".

The most damning fact about the Admiral's Masts was that they were staged the day BEFORE the Final Report was released. There were three such Masts conducted. The Admiral presented us with a fait accompli; i.e., it is all over. I have taken care of it.

Vice Admiral Wurster, the flag officer responsible for Healy personnel, said there was no evidence of “criminal intent or deliberate misconduct” by the officers before, during or after the accident. If that were the case, then why did he convene a criminal proceeding to punish the three officers before the report was released?
Both an Admiral's Mast and a General Court-martial are criminal proceedings. They are not civil in nature. The major difference between an Admiral's Mast and a General Court-martial is the maximum amount of punishment that can be awarded. Admiral Wurster and I only disagree on the appropriate forum to try the charges. He has already chosen to conduct a criminal proceeding. He should have been Superintendent at the Coast Guard Academy when Webster Smith was charged with making love to his girlfriend and taking nude pictures of another cadet. Webster would be an Ensign today.
There are other differences, of course. At an NJP Admiral's Mast there is no right to have an attorney. Why would you need one? Your buddy is conducting the proceeding. Also, there is no prosecutor, no defense attorney, no jury, and no spectators. The Admiral convening the Mast acts as the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the judge, and the jury. There are no specctators because it is a closed proceeding conducted behind closed doors in complete secrecy. But, the bottom line is that it is a criminal proceeding.

Wurster held his mast for the CO, XO, and the Ops Officer from the CGC Healy on January 14, the day before the Coast Guard released the Final Report of an investigation into the death of Lt. Jessica Hill, 31, and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Steven Duque.Wurster found the three — the commanding, executive and operations officers — guilty of dereliction of duty. That is a charge under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Captain Doug Russell, the CO, was relieved of command shortly after the accident. On January 14, his sentence was to receive a punitive letter of reprimand and a fine equal to one month’s pay.Commander Jeffrey Jackson, the XO, was sentenced to receive a punitive letter of admonition. The Operations Officer Lt. Cmmander. James Dalitsch was sentenced to receive a punitive letter of reprimand and a fine.All fines were suspended. The Admiral went through the motions, then he nullified it all. It was bad enough that he chose the lowest criminal forum available to punish these officers for their parts in the deaths of Lt. Hill and BM2 Duque, but he had the bad judgement to take back the token punishment.

Wurster said the men’s service records were “without flaw” before their poor performences of duty contributing to the deaths of Lt. Hill and BM2 Duque. He said the three suffered from leadership failures before and during the accident, but they lacked malice or criminal intent. That is great, but it is not a bar to a General Court-martial. It is only a matter in mitigation at a trial. The absence of malice may contribute to a lessening of the charges, but a jury of their peers should be allowed to weigh that against their conduct that is being judged.

“I believe that NJP was adequate,” Wurster said. “They took full responsibility.” Then they should confess and plead guilty at their court-martial. That should shorten the proceedings considerably.This Admiral's Mast conducted behind closed doors the day before a report of the facts was released to the public is a white wash.

This is an outrage. These things have gone on for years. In this age of faster communications and better trechnology when reports are published on the internet rather than being filed in the dungeons of official public records it will be harder to get the public to swallow the official party line.If any of the three officers had been caught in bed with Lt. Hill, there would have been a court-martial convened without question. We would be less likely to protect them if they had been involved in charges of a sexual nature. We have a fixation on sex crimes but not on homocides. What does that say about our sense of values?Their actions lead to the death of Lt. Hill. We are more prone to avenge her honor than her life.



Blogger ichbinalj said...

Lt Jessica Hill may have died in vain,but should she die broke?
There is criminal intent, and then there is civil liability. Any time anyone dies as a result of someone else's actions, there must be an assessment of criminal intent as well as civil liability. The absence of malice or criminal intent would be irrelevant in a civil suit.
The headlines are full of such actions. OJ Simpson was found not guilty of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, but he was found civilly liable for causing their deaths. A Santa Monica, California jury unanimously found O J Simpson liable in the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L Goldman, In a civil suit brought by the victims' families, they were awarded $8.5 million in compensatory damages plus an unspecified amount of punitive damages, that may well have exceeded one hundred million dollars.
Robert Blake was found not guilty of murdering Bunny Leigh Bakley, but he was found civilly liable in causing her death. The court ordered him to pay thirty million dollars to the estate of his ex-wife.
The jury in the civil case had to decide only whether it was probable that Blake was responsible; in the criminal case the jury had to decide his guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
If Nicole Brown Simpson’s life is worth more than $108,500,000.00; and Bonnie Bakely’s life is worth more than $30,000,000.00, then Lt Jessica Hill’s life is worth more than ZERO. That is what the suspended fines against the three officers amounted to. It all added up to ZERO dollars.
If the Coast Guard still thinks that people are our most valuable resource, then they should be able to offer the families of the deceased divers a small death settlement without forcing them to call ATLA, the Association of Trial Lawyer of America.

7:17 PM  
Blogger ichbinalj said...

Seattle Times Editorial, 1/17/07.

Coast Guard candor.

The Coast Guard undertook a commendable and unflinching review of a last August's fatal diving accident in Arctic waters. Sadly, the same professional rigor would have kept the two divers out of the frigid water and spared their lives.

The Coast Guard icebreaker Healy is based in Seattle, and the deaths of Lt. Jessica Hill and BM2 Steven Duque are felt in a large maritime community. Events surrounding their tragic deaths slowly played out in news columns over several months. Details of the Coast Guard investigation, released last Friday, tell a story of highly trained but inexperienced military diverseager to get a fresh entry in their dive book, keep their qualifications current and familiarize themselves with harsh conditions.

The dive coincided with a break in the routine called an "ice liberty," which gives a hard-working crew a chance to have some fun after 40 days aboard ship — and have very cold beer. It's a version of a steel-beach picnic on a ship at sea; wholly appropriate and desirable under the right circumstances.

Unfortunately, a demanding, dangerous and protocol-laden military activity was headed for trouble even if the ice liberty were completely out of the picture. SCUBA diving in icy waters was new to everyone involved. The divers aboard the Healy had other duties, so diving was collateral to their daily assignments.

There were not enough divers apparently available to satisfy safety rules requiring a knowledgeable person in charge staying on the surface, and having dive-trained tenders handling the safety lines. Neither happened.

It was no fault of the hastily grabbed tenders, who were not punished. A decent, astute judgment by the Coast Guard.

Senior officers admit to not understanding the manning requirements for coordinating a dive operation. Dives had taken place beyond helicopter support and timely back-up. The Healy had only one hyperbaric chamber available in case of an emergency.

The Coast Guard was sufficiently shocked and mortified by the first diving fatalities in more than 30 years to look through its program servicewide. The scrutiny started with the Healy and kept going.

Rule books are full of admonitions, requirements and guidelines usually based on grievous experience. Diving in Arctic waters is not the same as diving off Cabo San Lucas or offshore at Edmonds. Someone has to be in charge. Someone has to say no.

More hard lessons learned. To its credit, the Coast Guard confronted them.

7:31 PM  
Blogger ichbinalj said...

Are female officers expendable?
Anonymous said...
This should be a lesson to all female Coast Guard officers. You are expendable. The Coast Guard will not punish anyone whose negligence or poor performance of duty leads to your injury or death. You are just window dressing. You are politically correct trophies. You are on your own out there. You cannot even count on your own superior officers to correct you when they know you are wrong. If you are pretty, what you do not know, can hurt you. It could even kill you. It killed Lt. Jessica Hill.

11:00 AM  
Blogger ichbinalj said...

A tragic waste of life.
Lt. Jessica Hill will never get married. She will never again have Sunday dinner or spend Christmas with her mother and father. She will not give them grandchildren. The family has been deprived of a beautiful talented young lady. How is the Coast Guard going to make this up to her family? Was there a life insurance policy? Does it pay double for death on active duty during the performance of duty?
Or will the family have to get a smart, hungry lawyer to sue for wrongful death?
The three officer found responsible for the events that led to her death have been chastised, but not appropriately punished. They will move on with their lives. They will continue to enjoy the confort and companionship of their families and friends. The death of this innocent young woman made no significant impact upon their lives. Punishing them will not bring her back, but not punishing them will tarnish the memory of the dead diver. Her loyalty and dedication to the service will be cheapened and rendered less valuable by the inconsequential retribution visited upon those responsible for her death.
Admiral Thad Allen, Commandant, U. S. Coast Guard said that when it comes to dangerous operations such as diving, "good enough" is never good enough. We can do better. We will do better.
The convening authority, VADM Wurster, Pacific Area Commander, has TAKEN ACTION to hold HEALY's Commanding Officer, Executive Officer and Operations Officer accountable for failing to meet their personal responsibilities surrounding this mishap.
The deaths of LT Hill and BM2 Duque were preventable and resulted from failures at the Service, unit and individual levels. The investigation revealed failures in leadership within the chain of command aboard HEALY.
Sadly, the staging of non-judicial punishment of those responsible the day BEFORE the Final Report was released, appears to show a similar failure in leadership.

11:21 AM  
Blogger ichbinalj said...

SEATTLE - The following statements were delivered by Vice Adm. Charles Wurster at a press briefing at the Coast Guard's Integrated Support Command:
Since the tragic events of Aug. 17, 2006, the Coast Guard has been committed to determining the chain of events and decisions that led to this accident. The Coast Guard is committed to identifying all causal factors and is taking corrective actions.
The investigation uncovered failures at the service level, unit level, and individual level.
It is clear that shortcomings at the service, unit and individual level combined to form a lengthy error chain that provided many opportunities to identify weaknesses, change direction, and prevent an accident. No single person caused this accident.

That said, responsibility of a Coast Guard commanding officer for the safety of the ship's crew is absolute. Accordingly, considering his accountability for the day's events, I relieved the commanding officer of his duties on August 29, 2006.
In addition, I determined that the performance of the commanding officer, executive officer and operations officer represented a serious departure from the high standards expected of officers assigned to these positions. Accordingly, I called them to account for their failure in leadership and supervision in connection with this incident. Yesterday, I imposed non-judicial punishment for dereliction of duty in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The punishments I imposed were:
For the commanding officer: A punitive letter of reprimand and forfeiture of one-half of his monthly pay per month for two months.
For the executive officer: A punitive letter of admonition.
For the operations officer: A punitive letter of reprimand and forfeiture of one-quarter of his monthly pay per month for two months.
The forfeitures were suspended. For a commissioned officer, the punitive letters have significant career impacts and trigger other administrative processes.

11:03 AM  
Blogger energioso said...

Leaving a female diver with a bunch of inexperienced tenders reeks of negligence and wanton derelict of duty by all commanding officers aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy.

While I am glad the tenders did not get punished, the officers should.

Guaranteed that if the names of any of the three officers were Webster Smith, they would have court martial him and dismissed him from the Coast Guard faster than saying: “good old boys".

Everyone is in on the take. High ranking officers will always protect their own while sacrificing lower echelon lieutenants,BM2's, and other lower ranking Coast Guard personnel.

Nothing is more important than the furtherance of a White officer’s career. Not even death during an ice break.

I hope all those cold beers hoisted were worth the neglect involved.

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Omsbuddy said...

While it is saddening as to what took place on the HEALY, should we really have been surprised as to the outcome of the "Investigation"? I say no, not really, as the HEALY has a way of covering up all kinds of sins.

That fateful trip from Tromso to Dublin after the 2005 Push to the Pole forever changed the HEALY heart and it doesn't shock me one bit to have the ship retaliate.

Okay, so it sounds mythical, but that ship is haunted I tell you.

6:40 AM  
Blogger Diana said...

Jess has been gone nearly ten years now... I am still pissed at how the blame was pointed her way. I am still pissed that she was never supported. I am still pissed that those responsible were never truly held accountable. I AM STILL PISSED (AND SAD) THAT SHE IS GONE!!!!

Diana J. Wickman, LCDR, USCG (ret)

10:32 PM  

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