An investigating officer has recommended dropping the charges against the sole survivor of a 2010 Coast Guard helicopter crash that killed three crewmen from Air Station Sitka.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of Capt. Andrew Norris’s report.
Lt. Lance Leone was charged with failing to navigate around safety hazards and with negligently causing the deaths of two of the crewmen aboard the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter.
According to the AP, Norris doesn’t say Leone was blameless in the flight, but that the military can’t clearly draw links between any errors in navigation and the crash.
Norris’s recommendation that the charges be dropped was received as good news by Leone’s family. But the case could still proceed to a full court martial.
In December, the Coast Guard held an Article 32 hearing. It’s like a grand jury proceeding in civilian court, where evidence is laid out against a defendant. Capt. Andrew Norris presided over the hearing – he’s called the “investigating officer” in military parlance – and, according to the report obtained by AP and confirmed by John Smith, Leone’s private attorney, Norris is recommending the charges be dropped.
“I got the text from John, Lance’s lawyer,” said Leone’s mother, Heather Rice, who says she and her son were having lunch when they heard about Norris’s recommendation. “I heard Lance say, ‘Dropped?’ and I just – my shoulders dropped. It was like, ‘Wow.’ I’m all goosebumps right now. Look at that.”
Rice describes the news as a black cloud being lifted.
“We couldn’t believe it,” she said. “We looked at each other and I said ‘Really?’ But we still have to go on from this. The admiral has not made the decision, so this hasn’t ended yet. So I keep telling people to ‘keep the gales in your sails,’ because this isn’t over yet.”
Leone is represented by private and military attorneys, who have advised him not to speak with the media. And Smith, the private attorney, declined to comment when contacted Monday afternoon at his home near Washington, D.C.
Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Veronica Colbath says Norris’s recommendation is one more piece of information in the grand scheme of the crash investigation. It will be reviewed by Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, who commands the Coast Guard in Alaska. He’s referred to as the “convening authority.”
“The convening authority will review the investigating officer’s report and recommendations and decide how to proceed with the case,” Colbath said.
Ostebo can follow the recommendations by dropping the charges, or he can send the case on to a full court martial. He also can decide to handle the matter internally. Colbath says Norris’s report is “not releasable while the proceedings are underway.” Besides being given to Ostebo, the report was shared with the attorneys in the case. Colbath says there’s no timeline for Ostebo to make his decision.
“The story’s not over yet. It’s not over,” said Lt. Col. John Pharr, retired from the Army’s judge advocate corps, and now an attorney in private practice in Anchorage. He’s not directly involved in the case, but has extensive experience in military law. Pharr says the Leone family has every right to be happy with the recommendation from the Article 32 hearing, but should also know that convening authorities – like Ostebo, in this case – are “notoriously independent minded.”
“They should be mindful of that,” he said. “However, the Article 32 officer is not likely to look at it any different than a military jury would if they actually end up in front of a military jury, so there should be a certain amount of comfort in that fact. But any positive news like this is something that should be welcomed.”
Pharr has said in previous interviews that acquittals in cases such as this are common. It’s a thought he reiterated in light of Norris’s recommendation. Pharr says the way he interpreted Norris’s recommendation suggests to him that Norris might have found probable cause to charge Leone, but that based on Leone’s service record, doesn’t think he should face a full court martial. Pharr believes a jury would feel similarly.
“In other words, if it’s a good service member that’s been diligent and seems deserving, because they’ve served their country and served the military and had a good career, then military judges and juries are very reluctant to just completely end that because of a mistake,” Pharr said.
Pharr’s personal opinion is that the charges have already done career-ending damage. But Leone’s mother, Heather Rice, says her son still loves the Coast Guard, and wants not only to be cleared of the charges against him, but also to continue his career.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.