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Media coalition seeks public release of court-martial records related to 2020 ship fire

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Media coalition expresses concerns about Navy’s legal basis for denying public access to court-martial records of Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays
Photo of USS Bonhomme Richard on fire
Port of San Diego Harbor Police Department boats fight a fire on board USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego, July 12, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. John J. Mike)

The Reporters Committee and ProPublica, joined by 38 news media organizations, are urging the U.S. Defense Department to ensure the immediate public release of records related to a court-martial concerning one of the worst non-combat warship disasters in recent memory.

In a letter sent to the Defense Department’s general counsel on Sept. 13, the media coalition expressed concerns about the Navy’s legal basis for denying public access to nearly the entire court record in the court-martial of Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays, who is accused of setting fire to the USS Bonhomme Richard in 2020.

The media coalition’s letter, sent in advance of Mays’ Sept. 19 trial, argues that the Office of the Judge Advocate General of the Navy recently misinterpreted Article 140a of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, using it as the basis for their decision to keep the court-martial records under seal. However, Congress adopted that section of the military code in 2016 to enhance public access to court records.

“Access to records of this kind have long been recognized as essential to public trust and oversight of any court system,” the media coalition’s letter states. “Denying timely access to these records frustrates journalists’ ability to report on this case. The lack of transparency hampers the public’s ability to understand the proceedings, to assess the Navy’s decision to proceed with trial — despite its own preliminary hearing officer’s recommendation that it not do so — and, ultimately, to determine whether justice is served here.”

Journalists for ProPublica have been following Mays’s case, but their reporting has been frustrated by the OJAG’s refusal to disclose any of the court records.

The media coalition’s letter asks the Defense Department’s general counsel to issue guidance  correcting the misconception that Article 140a permits the military to broadly withhold court records and a public docket. It also requests that the general counsel clarify that the services must implement the provision in a manner that advances Congress’s aim of promoting timely public access to such records and a meaningful public docket.

“To that end,” the letter concludes, “we request that such guidance make clear that the court records in the Mays case must be released immediately and any future filings must be released contemporaneously, consistent with the First Amendment and common law.”