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Military Jury Acquits Pilot In Cable Car Tragedy Case

By Steve Vogel
THE WASHINGTON POST -- CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.

A military jury on Thursday acquitted Capt. Richard J. Ashby 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 Thursday morning at the end of seven hours’ 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 Ashby’s relatives, 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 ashen-faced relatives of the victims, who sat with their heads bowed in the small military courtroom following 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 after the verdict 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 innocent 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. He added, “How is it that the Marine Corps can claim that Capt. 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 videocamera 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.