HONOLULU – The U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry into last month’s collision between a navy submarine and a Japanese fisheries training ship neared its conclusion Monday with the sub’s captain being denied testimonial immunity and his attorney stating that he does not intend to call any witnesses.
The court of inquiry, which has heard from 32 witnesses since it began March 5, could end as early as Tuesday after court counsels and defense attorneys make their closing arguments, navy officials said.
Pacific Fleet commander in chief Adm. Thomas Fargo, the convening authority, verbally notified the inquiry of his decision to deny Cmdr. Scott Waddle’s request for immunity based on the court’s recommendation and on his own evaluation of testimony Monday morning by a key witness, a technician who was in charge of analyzing sonar data on Feb. 9. Waddle was relieved of his command after the accident.
The nuclear-powered attack sub was conducting an “emergency blow” maneuver at the time to demonstrate to 16 civilian VIPs how a sub can quickly surface in an emergency.
Fargo has determined that Waddle’s testimony is not “essential” in determining the facts of the case. The skipper had said he would only testify if granted testimonial immunity, meaning his testimony would be inadmissible in a court-martial.
In addition, navy officials said, Fargo was concerned that granting Waddle’s request would set a precedent of allowing its commanders, who are ultimately responsible for anything that happens aboard their vessels, to be granted testimonial immunity in future cases.
As the court began its afternoon session at Pearl Harbor, the two other parties to the inquiry, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald K. Pfeifer, the sub’s executive officer, and Lt. j.g. Michael Coen, the officer of the deck at the time of the accident, both issued unsworn statements to the court that, under court rules, are not subject to cross-examination.
Waddle’s attorney, admittedly “taken aback” by the pace of the day’s events, then asked the court to recess until Tuesday morning to give him and his client time to formulate their final decision on whether to testify, or whether to submit a sworn or unsworn statement in lieu of testimony.
Petty Officer 1st class Patrick Seacrest, the sub’s fire control technician, whose job is to analyze sonar information to plot the location and movement of surface ships, had initially declined to testify but changed his mind after being granted testimonial immunity.
Seacrest had come under scrutiny for failing to inform the captain or officer of the deck about the presence of the Ehime Maru, which had been plotted by sonar as closing in on the submarine in the minutes before the collision.
He testified that the crowding of civilian VIPs in the sub’s cramped control room, which has been the focus of close attention during the proceedings, was not the reason he failed to alert his superiors about the Ehime Maru, contrary to earlier witnesses’ testimony.
Rather, he said, he was simply unaware that the two vessels were on a collision course because he had been focusing on a new surface contact that the sub’s sonar had picked up shortly before going to periscope depth for a visual search that failed to spot the Ehime Maru less than 3.6 km away.
Waddle’s defense is arguing that while he may be responsible, his mistakes or oversights on the day of the accident do not amount to criminal negligence.
Earlier Monday, Waddle made a statement to reporters saying that he alone is accountable and responsible for the accident, not his crew.
“I am accountable, I am responsible for the actions that led to the tragic collision and sinking of the Ehime Maru,” he said. “None of my crew members should be accountable or responsible for that accident.”
The court of inquiry is not a judicial trial or court-martial as it will not render a verdict or make a final determination of punishment.
After the court concludes, its panel of three admirals is expected to deliberate for several weeks before issuing a report of findings, opinions and recommendations to Fargo.
Fargo then has 30 days to determine whether Waddle or members of his crew should be court-martialed or subjected to disciplinary action.