Cable car pilot not guilty of killings

Mary Dejevsky
Friday 05 March 1999 00:02

THE PILOT of a US surveillance aircraft was acquitted yesterday on all charges relating to the cable car disaster that killed 20 people in an Italian ski resort last year in a verdict that revived the shock and resentment felt in Italy.

The acquittal was greeted with cheers from the man's family in the courtroom and silence and tears from relatives of the victims. The Marine jet had sliced through the cables of the ski lift during a low-flying training flight, sending all those inside to their deaths at the northern ski resort of Cavalese on 3 February last year.

The pilot, Captain Richard Ashby, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and a series of offences, including destruction of property and dereliction of duty, which could have brought an aggregate prison sentence of more than 200 years.

Yesterday, however, after a two-week court martial at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and almost eight hours of deliberation, the eight members of the military jury acquitted the pilot on all charges.

Within minutes of the verdict being announced, John Eaves, a lawyer representing the families of the seven German victims, emerged from the courtroom to express his clients' shock and disappointment. "They don't understand the verdict," he said. "There's no justice in the world."

Mr Eaves also contested the US administration's decision to pay the Italian cable car company $20m in compensation rather than addressing the claims of the victims' families.

They must now sue through other courts to obtain compensation.

The charges against Captain Ashby were based on allegations that he and his navigatordeliberately flouted low-flying regulations to engage in a risky practice known as "flathatting", flying as fast and as near to the ground as possible.

The prosecution cited the presence of a video-camera on the flight to support the theory that the captain - whose last flight this was before his transfer to fighter pilot training - was out to show bravado and test the limits of his flying expertise.

Prosecution lawyers also claimed that the aircraft's four-man crew had tampered with the camera, destroying an incriminating video and replacing it with a blank.

In acquitting Captain Ashby, the jury appeared to accept the arguments of his defence counsel that the accident was caused by an optical illusion, which made objects seem further away than they were.

The defence also argued that equipment may have malfunctioned and that when the pilot realised he was flying too close to the ground, he adjusted the aircraft's height - a measure, they said, that he would not have taken if he had set out to flout the regulations.

In the course of the trial, it emerged that the Marines used US military maps that did not show cables, rather than local maps which did, and that there was confusion in the command about the altitude regulations for low flying. The local commander was removed soon after the accident.

The disaster caused an upsurge of anti-American feeling in Italy to the point where President Bill Clinton offered an official apology. Residents of Cavalese and other Alpine regions overflown by US military aircraft complained that pilots habitually broke the rules on low flying and disregarded the safety of local people.

Yesterday's verdict was expected to precipitate a resurgence of the hostility towards the United States being voiced in Italy - hostility that will only be compounded if, as is forecast, the court martial of the aircraft's navigator is now dropped as well.

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