SAN DIEGO — Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays began his case against investigators who blame the US Navy sailor for sparking the 2020 blaze that destroyed the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard.
On Friday, Sept. 23, the prosecution rested its case against the 21-year-old sailor, and court watchers got a taste of what’s likely to become a cornerstone of the defense team’s tactics in this, the second week of Mays’ court-martial trial here.
Defense attorneys pounced on the words of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent who led the probe into a fire that caused $1.2 billion in damages to the warship. They accused him of a rush to justice, targeting Mays from the beginning in a biased investigation that landed him a convenient scapegoat.
“I didn’t even know who Seaman Recruit Mays was at the time,” Special Agent Albert Porter told the courtroom, adding that “facts drove the train.”
Porter said he used his status as a SEAL veteran to gain rapport with Mays, who flunked out of initial training for the elite unit. He suspected simmering anger about that failure boiled over with Mays, triggering his decision to incinerate the warship.
Prosecutors have sought to portray Mays as an arrogant and disgruntled non-rate with an angry motive and ample time to plot his arson. To buttress their pitch, prosecutors showed clips culled from nine hours of video footage capturing Mays’ interrogation.
The camera captured Mays staring at Porter, as if catching him in a lie, before he bluntly said, “I’m really smart, dude. I got you.”
As those words echoed through the courtroom, Mays’ head fell into his hands. It was a rare sign of emotion from a defendant who has sat stoically in his seat during the first week of his court-martial trial.
Porter was replaced on the stand by a pair of masters-at-arms, the Navy’s version of military police. Prosecutors say they heard Mays confess to setting the blaze.
Master-at-Arms Senior Chief Jeremy Kelley testified that he heard Mays utter, “I’m guilty. I did it.”
“Something to that effect,” Kelley added.
Prosecutors painted those words as an earnest confession from a sailor who has steadfastly maintained his innocence. Defense attorneys said it was merely the sarcastic and frustrated phrase of a beaten-down sailor who was badgered by the brass and NCIS investigators.
On Monday morning, defense attorneys get their chance to build on that.