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  Marine Pilot Acquitted in Alps Deaths

Richard Ashby
Marine Captain Richard Ashby's lawyer Frank Spinner, left, speaks at Camp Lejeune, N.C., after Ashby was acquitted of charges in an Italian ski gondola. (The Washington Post)
By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 1999; Page A1

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C., Mar. 4 A military jury acquitted Capt. Richard J. Ashby today of all charges brought against him for piloting his Marine jet through cables holding a ski gondola last year in an accident that sent 20 people plunging to their deaths in the Italian Alps.

The verdict produced swift outrage in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, as well as an anguished reaction from victims' relatives attending the court-martial on this base near Jacksonville, N.C. Criticism arose from all sides against the Marine Corps, with suggestions that the jury of eight Marine officers protected one of their own as well as accusations that Marine commanders tried to make scapegoats out of Ashby and other crew members to cover failures up the chain of command.

"The Marine Corps conducted an open, fair and judicial process for all to see," responded Maj. Scott Jack, a Marine Corps spokesman.

After a year of painful recriminations on both sides of the Atlantic and a three-week trial, the verdict came with stunning finality this morning at the end of seven hours of deliberation over two days: "Captain Richard J. Ashby, this court finds you, of all the specifications and charges, not guilty," said Col. William T. Snow, president of the jury.

A joyous whoop erupted from relatives of Ashby, sitting directly behind the pilot. "Praise the Lord," said Ashby's mother, Carol Ann Anderson, clinging to the hands of family friends.

One of the Marine prosecutors, Maj. Stu Crouch, turned to the ashen-faced relatives of the victims, who sat with their heads bowed in the small military courtroom after the verdict. "I'm sorry," he said softly.

Ashby, standing at attention as the verdict was read, showed little emotion, but had a wan smile as he shook hands with his attorney, Frank Spinner.

Not only did the jury clear him of involuntary manslaughter and a lesser charge of negligent homicide, it found him not guilty on the relatively minor charges of dereliction of duty and destruction of property.

Spinner, who has accused the Marine Corps of bowing to political pressure created by Italy's outrage over the accident, called for a congressional investigation of the Corps' behavior.

"I think it's time, now that the truth has come out in the courtroom, for the Marine Corps to look back at how this trial came about, and I think it's time for Congress, perhaps, to look at the Marine Corps once all these issues are resolved, and look at what went wrong," Spinner told reporters after the verdict, adding: "How is it that the Marine Corps can claim that Captain Ashby committed an act of involuntary manslaughter, recklessness, and how is it that a jury could acquit him of those same charges and even lesser charges?"

Ashby still faces a separate court martial on a charge of obstruction of justice in connection with a videotape that he has admitted removing from a video camera that the crew carried and used during the flight.

Speaking briefly before reporters, Ashby did not discuss the verdict or take questions. "All I really want to say is this has been a tragedy for all involved, and my heart, my thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this tragedy," Ashby said. He did not answer a question about whether he would ever fly again for the Marine Corps.

The accident at the ski resort in Cavalese, Italy, on Feb. 3, 1998, killed 20 people from countries across Europe, including seven friends from one town in eastern Germany, a Polish mother and her 12 year-old son, and a Belgian law student and her fiance.

"I buried my husband a year ago," said Rita Wunderlich, whose husband Jurgen was killed in the accident. "Today was his second funeral."

Wunderlich and other relatives from Germany, wiping away tears during an appearance before reporters, rejected the apology that Ashby delivered to reporters. "If Captain Ashby is really sorry, why didn't he tell us?" Wunderlich said. "He could have looked into our eyes."

Family members expressed incredulity over the verdict and wondered whether the Marine officers on the jury had fairly judged the evidence. "There is a saying in Germany, one crow doesn't peck out the eyes of another," said Sindy Renkewitz, who lost her father Uwe and sister Mandy in the accident.

John Arthur Eaves, an attorney for seven German families, renewed a call for the U.S. government to fairly compensate the relatives for the deaths of the victims. "This is not a good example of American justice," he said.

The Italian prime minister, Massimo D'Alema, said in Boston during a visit to the United States that he is "baffled" by the verdict. He called the accident a "massacre." "I think it is our duty to ensure that those who are responsible are held liable and to ensure that justice is done," he was quoted as saying in an Associated Press dispatch. D'Alema is scheduled to meet with President Clinton Friday at the White House.

In Italy, there was outrage across the political spectrum, according to press accounts. "I am outraged and indignant at this verdict," said Valdo Spini of Italy's lower house of parliament.

During the trial, government prosecutors alleged that Ashby was flying his EA-6B Prowler too low and too fast during a low-level training mission through the mountains in Italy. But Spinner argued that Ashby was not properly trained for low-level flights, that the crew was given a map that did not show the cableway and that the pilot may have been fooled about his true altitude by an optical illusion created as he flew up the steep valley over ground that rose in elevation unnoticed below him.

The navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, is scheduled for a court martial on similar charges later this month, but today's verdict generated calls for the charges against him to be dropped.

But prosecutors said they will pursue the case. Charges against crew members who were in the rear cockpit during the accident were dropped last summer. Through a Marine spokesman, jury members and prosecutors declined to comment, citing the pending cases against Ashby and Schweitzer.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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