Navy SEALS: Crime, Justice and Accountability

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Former Chief Petty Officer Tony DeDolph, left, a member of SEAL Team 6, pleaded guilty in January to several charges in the June 4, 2017, death of Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar, right. Photo via Stars and Stripes.

On Jan. 23, Chief Petty Officer Tony DeDolph of the U.S. Navy SEALs was sentenced to ten years in prison for the involuntary manslaughter of Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar of the U.S. Army Green Berets.

DeDolph, a member of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, commonly known as SEAL Team 6, “pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit assault, involuntary manslaughter, hazing and obstruction of justice.” He also forfeited pay, was reduced in rank to an E-1, and received a dishonorable discharge.

The crime occurred in June 2017, in the African nation of Mali, where both men were serving in an intelligence operation.

While the incident was well-reported in the media, there was little public outcry. Outside of military circles, the incident remains largely unknown and forgotten.

However, the case showcased the problems within the SEAL community, and the hurdles that DeDolph’s involuntary manslaughter conviction poses to legitimate reform of the U.S. Navy’s Special Warfare elements.

 According to court documents, Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar, a U.S. Army Green Beret, died in a hazing incident involving alcohol and “frat-like” behavior as a result of the actions of two U.S. Navy SEALs―Petty Officer 1st Class Anthony DeDolph and Chief Petty Officer Adam Matthews―and two MARSOC (Marine Forces Special Operations Command) operators, Gunnery Sgt. Mario Madera-Rodriguez and Staff Sgt. Kevin Maxwell.

The hazing involved breaking into Melgar’s room with a sledgehammer, pinning him down and rendering him unconscious, before tying him up and hiring a local Malian guard to lie down half- naked next to Melgar while a British man would record the action.

The subsequent investigation found that the soldiers repeatedly covered up their actions, made conflicting statements to investigators, and lied about Melgar’s drinking prior to the incident. This eventually resulted in charges of felony murder and obstruction of justice, among others, being brought in November of 2018.

Two months after Melgar’s death, while the investigation was underway, DeDolph was promoted from Petty Officer 1st Class to Chief Petty Officer.

Eventually, the service members began pleading out their cases, with Matthews pleading “guilty to charges that he conspired to commit assault and battery, unlawful entry, and obstructed justice by lying to investigators about who was involved in Melgar’s death.”  He was sentenced to a year’s confinement in the brig, demoted to the rank of Petty Officer 2nd Class, and given a “bad conduct discharge.”

Maxwell pleaded guilty in June of the same year to charges of “negligent homicide, conspiracy to commit assault, hazing, obstructing justice and making false official statements to investigators.” He was sentenced to four years’ confinement, a reduction in rank to E-1, and a bad conduct discharge.

DeDolph pleaded guilty to similar charges, including manslaughter, in January. He was sentenced to 20 years.


Navy SEAL insignia

Madera-Rodriguez is still awaiting a trial date.

Virtually all the defendants, in their pleas or through statements from their attorneys, have stated that they never intended to harm Melgar.

With the Melgar case, the soldiers were charged with felony murder, among an assortment of other crimes. In the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), felony murder is considered met with three criteria: “a premeditated design to kill…intends to kill or inflict great bodily harm…[and] is engaged in an act which is inherently dangerous to another and evinces a wanton disregard of human life; or is engaged in the perpetration or attempted perpetration of burglary, rape, rape of a child, sexual assault, sexual assault of a child, aggravated sexual contact, sexual abuse of a child, robbery, or aggravated arson.”

There was clear premeditation of the event (the planning of the hazing at a restaurant, the gathering of duct tape and sledgehammer, recruiting the Malian and British conspirators); and the act demonstrated a disregard of human life (physically restraining another soldier by use of force and arranging that he be photographed with a partially clothed man while unconscious).

The most difficult area for the prosecution to provide proof would be in the “intent to kill or inflict great bodily harm.”

This could have been accomplished had the prosecution been more uncompromising in their desire to hold trials for those soldiers responsible and had sought more severe charges for all of those involved.

Had this tactic been adopted, perhaps one of the soldiers would have been more open to testifying against the others. He might have provided new information or testimony which would have indicated an intent on the parts of some or all to deliberately inflict harm upon Melgar.

From a legal perspective, while pleading allowed time, court resources, and money to be saved, this case, given the circumstances and those involved, warranted a felony murder trial.

Despite the evidence from the mouths of the soldiers themselves (in addition to forensic evidence showing the mutilation of Melgar’s body and the autopsy report), the U.S. Navy chose instead to provide plea deals to most of the soldiers involved when the felony murder charge should have been more actively sought.

This case showcases the need for reform in the SEAL community―and in the entire Special Operations Forces community. In recent years, SEALs have been drunk and committed rapes on operations, heavily consumed narcotics while on duty, and murdered civilian non-combatants.

Signs of reformation and individual/team responsibility emerged in mid-2019 with the placement of Rear Admiral Collin P. Green as head of USNAVSPECWARCOM (U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command) who pledged to work on reforming SEAL culture.

However, within the year, Green announced he would be taking on the role of Chief of Staff for the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) following a very public disagreement with President Donald Trump over Green’s support of “a review to remove Edward Gallagher from the Navy SEALs.”

alan cunnningham

Alan Cunningham

For the moment, it seems that the desires of Green to change the SEAL culture and ethos have been placed on hold. His replacement, Rear Admiral H. Wyman Howard III, who had once purchased hatchets for his SEAL Team Six members and instructed “them to bloody [it],” is no reformer.

Trump’s pardons for soldiers convicted of various, appalling war crimes has added additional obstacles on the road towards an effective and professional fighting force that obeys the law and holds itself accountable when wrongdoing occurs.

The plea deals the U.S. Navy provided to DeDolph, Matthews and Maxwell do not demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law. Just as importantly, they do not provide the level of justice that should have been given to the Melgar family.

This is a slightly edited version of an essay posted earlier in The Jurist, and reproduced here with permission. Alan Cunningham is a graduate student at Norwich University and will graduate in June of this year. He has gained acceptance to the University of Birmingham in the UK and plans to join the U.S. Navy as an Officer. He has previously published in the U.S. Army War College’s War Room, Eunomia Journal, ReaperFeed, and multiple others. He can be reached on Twitter at @CadetCunningham.