Political pressure hurried an investigation and led to unfair charges against the crew of a Marine jet that cut a gondola cable in Italy, killing 20 people, lawyers for two crewmen say.
After a military hearing Monday, one lawyer said he wanted to question the commanding generals who had spoken to witnesses."We are concerned about political pressure and the effect that can have," said Dave Beck, who represents the plane's navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer. He wouldn't elaborate on the pressure. "It was a tragic accident," Beck said. "The question is was there criminal negligence. We deny that there was."
The jet, stationed at the U.S. air base in Aviano, was on a training run Feb. 3 when it sliced the cable used by the gondola packed with skiers at an Alpine ski resort, sending the car crashing into the slopes.
A Marine investigation board blamed the four-man crew for the accident, saying the members broke altitude and speed rules during the flight.
But a lawyer for the pilot of the Marine EA-6B Prowler also said political pressure was at the center of the case.
"There is certainly enough (evidence) to indicate at this point that what has happened thus far is a function of political pressure," said Frank Spinner, who represents the pilot, Capt. Richard Ashby.
Investigators also worked hastily, Spinner said.
Spinner and Beck are civilian lawyers hired by the defendants. Each crewman also has two military lawyers, none of whom spoke after the hearing, the equivalent of a grand jury proceeding.
The four men charged in the case - Ashby, Schweitzer, Capt. Chandler Seagraves and Capt. William Raney - are stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, about 30 miles from Camp Lejeune.
The four are charged with involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, dereliction of duty, destruction of military property and destroying civilian property. Each could get 20 years in prison if convicted of manslaughter or homicide. No pleas have been entered.
Spinner said the charges were unusual. "For decades, military members have been involved in training exercises which have resulted in deaths and in many of those cases there have been acts of negligence, perhaps even recklessness, and there does not appear to be anyone who has been court-martialed previously under similar circumstances," he said.
The military judge will recommend to the commanding general of Atlantic marine forces whether to call a court-martial.