Staff Sgt. Faces Court-Martial After Fatal West Point Crash
Staff Sgt. Ladonies Strong, an Army soldier stationed in Georgia, will face a court-martial for her role in an accident that killed 22-year-old West Point Cadet Christopher J. Morgan. The vehicular accident took place on June 6, 2019, at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. The accident occurred outside the grounds of the academy. Little information has been released as to Staff Sgt. Strong’s charges and why she is being court-martialed.
The accident occurred during a training mission near the Camp Natural Bridge training site close to the academy’s main gate. Staff Sgt. Strong was one of two soldiers operating the M1085 medium tactical vehicle long-wheelbase cargo truck. The vehicle is similar to a large flatbed truck. The vehicle was carrying several cadets to a land navigation site as a part of standard summer cadet training that takes place at the academy every year.
At 6:45 a.m., the vehicle overturned in rough and wooded terrain. The accident is uncommon, but not unheard of because of the ground conditions. Two soldiers and nineteen cadets were injured in the accident. These injuries were non-life threatening and including broken bones and facial lacerations. It is unknown if Staff Sgt. Strong was one of the injured. Cadet Morgan was declared dead at the scene. The cause of death was ruled to be from injuries he sustained as a result of the vehicle rollover.
Cadet Morgan intended to graduate West Point in 2020, where he was majoring in law and legal studies. He was also recruited for the Army Wrestling Team, where he was a stand-out athlete. He was laid to rest on June 15 at West Point’s cemetery. His service was attended by over 1,500 people including family, friends, fellow cadets, and military personnel.
The Case So Far
The accident was reviewed in an Article 32 investigation which took place in October 2019. Article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice requires that an independent investigation be conducted by unbiased investigative officers. The process involves a preliminary hearing that is conducted before a soldier can be recommended for a general court-martial. It is similar to a civilian grand jury, where all the facts and all possible charges against the accused are considered.
At the Article 32 hearing, Staff Sgt. Strong declined to make a statement in her defense. She also declined to add any further evidence or speak to her role in the accident. After reviewing the results of the Article 32 investigation, Commanders at Fort Stewart in Georgia ordered a general court-martial for Staff Sgt. Strong.
The Army has not publicly revealed many details of the accident. While the charges suggest that Staff Sgt. Strong was driving the vehicle, this detail has yet to be confirmed. Briefs from the Article 32 hearing and charges published have not revealed any further details that could shed light on why she is being charged with such serious crimes or receiving a general court-martial.
The Court Martial
General court-martials are reserved for the most serious of offenses. The court contains a military judge and a panel of at least five members. Both sides are represented by counsel. The judge will hear the case and then make a final judgment. The judge has the power to issue several maximum punishments including life imprisonment, death, or dishonorable discharge.
Staff Sgt. Strong has received several charges under the UCMJ. She has been charged with:
- Involuntary manslaughter
- Negligent homicide, and
- Prevention of and reckless operation of a vehicle.
She also faces charges of authorized seizure of property. Finally, she received two separate charges of derelict of duty.
Staff Sgt. Strong was previously stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia. She is currently assigned to the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, also in Georgia. This is where her court-martial will be held. The next hurdle for Staff Sgt. Strong is her pre-trial hearing. This will be scheduled by a military judge sometime in 2020. This hearing will explain the charges more and allow for the rules of the trial to be laid out. It is also an opportunity for her defense to make any objections.
After this, her case will proceed to the general court-martial. The judge will have the power to issue several maximum punishments including life imprisonment, death, or dishonorable discharge. Under military law, the maximum sentence allowed is three years for negligent homicide. For involuntary manslaughter, the maximum amount of prison time is ten years.