Navy Lt. Thomas Torchia proclaimed, "The military system worked," after he was acquitted of dereliction of duty in the panic-induced drowning of a 19-year-old recruit during a swimming course.
The jury of two lieutenant commanders and two commanders deliberated 31/2 hours Thursday night before returning the verdict in the court-martial of Torchia, the officer in charge of Pensacola Naval Air Station's Navy Rescue Swimmer School on March 2 when Arman Recruit Lee Mirecki died."The military system worked," a smiling Torchia, 32, said. "The same system that charged me found me not guilty. I feel great."
Torchia, of Princeton, Ill., who was court-martialed after he refused to submit to less serious charges in an administrative hearing, was among six Navy men charged in the death of Mirecki, of Appleton, Wis.
Mirecki, who had been diagnosed as having a phobia of water, died during a rescue exercise called "sharks and daisies," in which instructors pretend to be drowning, grab for students and try to pull them under water.
Mirecki first crawled from the school's pool, but instructors forced him back into the water, according to testimony. His head then was held under water, and he panicked, had a heart attack and drowned, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors contended that Tor-chia retreated from the pool to his glass-enclosed office on that day, made a telephone call and kept his finger in his free ear with his head turned away while Mirecki drowned. Torchia said he never knew anything was wrong at the pool.
Lynn Johansen, the sister of Mir-ecki, said she accepts the verdict. "There was never a time when I wanted one judgment or another," she said.
Torchia, who was removed as head of the rescue school after Mirecki's death, said he will continue his Navy career in aviation maintenance. Asked whether he had advice for Navy recruits, he said, "I hope that they haven't lost confidence," in the training.
If convicted, Torchia could have lost his seniority and two-thirds of his base pay for three months and received a letter of reprimand.
Petty Officer Michael Combe, 28, of Tempe, Ariz., faces court-martial as the instructor who allegedly held Mirecki's head under water. His lawyers were to argue at a hearing Friday in favor of motions to drop the charges against him.