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Cohen: U.S./Italian Ties Will Withstand Cable Car Verdict

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

NAPLES, March 5, 1999 – NAPLES - Calling the March 4 acquittal of U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Richard Ashby a difficult, but fair decision, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said he believed U.S./Italian ties would remain strong despite Italy's emotional reaction over the verdict.

During a brief stop in Naples the day after the verdict was announced, the secretary called Italian Defense Minister Carlos Scognamiglio in Rome. Cohen said the Italian minister understood the difficulties of the case and was pleased to hear from his American counterpart regarding the trial's outcome.

A military court martial acquitted Ashby of recklessly causing 20 skiers deaths when his EA6B Prowler sliced a gondola cable, sending the car they were riding in plunging 370 feet to the slope below. Seven Germans, five Belgians, three Italians, two Austrians, two Poles and one Dutch skier died in the accident Feb. 3, 1998.

The acquittal outraged Italians and family members of the deceased, according to press reports. CNN reported that the president of the province where the accident occurred called it a "punch in the stomach," and Italy's prime minister, Massimo D'Alema, was disturbed by the outcome. D'Alema told reporters Italy seeks justice and will explore all legal ways to ensure those responsible are held liable.

Cohen acknowledged such reactions are understandable. "It's a very emotional decision right now," he said shortly after learning of the verdict. "But we have strong ties with the Italian government and the people, and I think our relationship will endure."

Cohen expressed America's "heartfelt grief" over the tragedy and sympathy for the families who suffered the loss of loved ones. "This was a very difficult case," the secretary said. "All I can say is that it was open; it was fair in terms of the process itself."

The military jury concluded there was no criminal misconduct, the secretary stressed. He refrained from saying more about the case because the navigator still faces charges in the case and Ashby faces an obstruction of justice charge concerning a videotape that was removed from the plane after the accident.

"We hope that the procedures put in place now will prevent this from taking place in the future," Cohen concluded.

During a Pentagon Press Briefing March 4, Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said, "There is now a clear minimum flight ceiling of 2,000 feet. Because of that restriction, the planes do not do any low-level flight operations in the Alps." He added that after every flight there will be a third party review of the flight tapes to make sure that there was full compliance with all the flight rules and regulations.

Ashby was accused of flying the 42-minute training mission too fast and too low. Prosecutors said he violated the mission's 517 mph speed and 2,000-foot altitude limits. He was charged with 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count each of destroying government property, dereliction of duty, and failure to plan the flight properly. If convicted, the 31-year-old Marine officer faced a maximum sentence of 206 years.

During the trial at Camp LeJeune, N.C., defense lawyers contended that the incident was purely an accident. They said the cable was not shown on Ashby's map; the plane's altimeter malfunctioned; and an optical illusion made the pilot think the aircraft was flying higher than it actually was.

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