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Navy hearing will decide if a sailor should face court martial for ship fire

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The sailor accused of setting the fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard will be in court today for the first time. The Navy will have to prove its case, despite its own reports showing a series of failures after the fire broke out that led to the total loss of the ship. Steve Walsh with KPBS in San Diego has the story.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Seaman Apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays is accused of setting the fire that burned along the San Diego waterfront for four days. An earlier court filing paints Mays as a disgruntled sailor upset with his position in the Navy after failing to qualify as a SEAL. Outside legal analysts see some hurdles for prosecutors in the case. Attorney Toni O'Neill.

TONI O'NEILL: It seems like they must have more than they've released to the media, that's out there in the public. Seems like they've kept some of it back.

WALSH: This is the most high-profile case for the Navy since SEAL Eddie Gallagher went on trial for war crimes in 2019, when, after repeated meddling from the Trump White House, Gallagher largely went free. O'Neill is with the same law firm that also represented Gallagher.

O'NEILL: I think the fact that this case is going to get media coverage - and the last Navy case that got a lot of media coverage was pretty embarrassing for the Navy.

WALSH: Naval investigators have concluded that the ship should have been saved, whether or not the fire was arson. Multiple investigations have highlighted poor training and a lack of coordination on the morning of the fire. While only Mays is charged with crimes, 36 others have been referred for additional action. Lawrence Brennan is a former naval officer and a law professor at Fordham University.

LAWRENCE BRENNAN: If the accused is truly guilty of igniting a fire that caused damage and intended to do it, that's a crime. But is the captain, the executive officer, the command duty officer - are they culpable in a criminal sense?

WALSH: The Bonhomme Richard was being upgraded to handle the new F-35 fighter jet. Only a skeleton crew was on board that July weekend. At the height of COVID protocols, everyone was wearing masks, making it harder to positively ID the suspect, though that issue isn't insurmountable, Brennan says.

BRENNAN: I think that will be one of the points we'll see some evidence at the hearing. I'm not surprised if sailors can recognize their shipmates, even with masks on. We do a fair amount of work wearing face coverings before COVID.

O'NEILL: It doesn't look open and shut to me. That's why I think they must have something that they haven't released. Some sailors seeing him leave the area - it doesn't sound like enough to me. I mean, the fact that he was disgruntled doesn't sound like enough.

WALSH: O'Neill says arson can be difficult to prove in court, and there's also the question over whether the defense had enough access to the ship before the Navy sent the vessel to be scrapped.

O'NEILL: The fact that it is hard to prove and that it does end up being experts explaining to, you know, a jury of - while they're professionals, they're surely not fire experts. The fact that the defense didn't get their expert in there to say, no, actually, it means ABC is going to be really important.

WALSH: The Navy put a $4 billion price tag on the loss of the USS Bonhomme Richard. The hearings set for this week are basically the Navy's version of a grand jury. Mays could decide to plead guilty to a lesser charge. First, prosecutors have to show they have enough evidence to warrant a trial in a case that once again puts naval justice in the national spotlight.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.