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Navy in San Diego is withholding decision on Bonhomme Richard arson case

The Navy is still not revealing whether the sailor accused of setting fire to the USS Bonhomme Richard will stand trial. It’s part of a quirk in military justice.

The Navy is still not revealing whether the sailor accused of setting fire to the USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego Bay will stand trial.

It has been more than six weeks since Seaman's Apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays was in military court to face charges of arson and hazarding a vessel in connection with the the July 2020 fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego.

RELATED: Navy faces tough task proving arson in USS Bonhomme Richard fire

The head of the Third Fleet, Vice Admiral Stephen T. Koehler has decided to not reveal the hearing officer’s decision in the case, until the admiral decides whether to accept her recommendation, according to the Third Fleet Public Affairs.


Allowing commanders to make legal decisions is something peculiar to military justice, according to Robert Muth with the Veteran's Legal Clinic at the University of San Diego.

“If you can imagine an environment where they are deployed or underway, a commander would want to be able to have the power to ensure that his troops are behaving in his or her intended fashion," Muth said. "However, of course, the cons to that is you have someone who is not legally trained, who is making a very sometimes complicated decision, particularly in the case of like an arson case.”

The admiral overseeing the case can also throw out some decisions, even after a conviction.

Congress has looked at limiting the role of commanders in military justice.

The law recently changed to remove them entirely in cases involving sexual assault.


“You've seen cases where commanders have said, I know this individual, I think they're a good person," Muth said. "I don't think it would be something that they would do, whereas the prosecutor who happened to know the individual involved would never be involved in that case in the first place.”

It has already been a long haul to bring the Bonhomme Richard case to a court martial.

The fire happened 18 months ago. Mays was in court for a week in December, as prosecutors laid out their case that the fire was intentionally set.

Defense experts, including a former US Alcohol Tobacco and Fire Arms arson investigator, testified that it could not be determined with certainty that the fire was arson.

Unlike the trial itself, the legal standard for bringing the case to a court martial rests on whether it is more likely than not that Mays committed a crime.

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