Defense begins case in Marine's cable car trial
From Correspondent Aram Roston
February 24, 1999
CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina (CNN) -- Defense attorneys on Wednesday began describing U.S. Marine Capt. Richard Ashby's version of events that led his EA-6B Prowler jet to sever a ski gondola cable last year in Italy, sending the car crashing to the ground. All 20 people aboard were killed.
The defense opened its case after the prosecution rested earlier in the day. Prosecutors had questioned 55 witnesses during 11 days of testimony. Ashby is being court-martialed on charges of manslaughter in the February 3, 1998, incident near Cavalese.
The first two defense witnesses to testify -- members of Ashby's squadron -- said they considered Ashby an excellent pilot. Ashby is expected to testify in his own defense.
The government contends Ashby acted recklessly by flying too low and too fast in violation of regulations.
In opening statements Wednesday, Ashby's attorneys said the incident was an accident, not a crime.
The defense contends the plane's altimeter malfunctioned, the gondola cable wasn't on U.S. Marine maps of the area and an optical illusion made Ashby think he was flying higher than he actually was.
Ashby, 31, of Mission Viejo, California, faces a sentence of 200 years in prison, if convicted.
On Tuesday, a veteran Marine pilot who investigated the disaster for the government testified that Ashby was not qualified to fly the training mission.
"The reason I didn't think he was qualified to fly the flight was that he hadn't flown a low-level for seven months," Col. James Brubaker said.
Another prosecution witness, Capt. William Raney, was in the back seat of the Marine jet during the flight. Raney, testifying under a grant of immunity, contradicted the government's argument that Ashby intended to fly too low and too fast -- "flathatting" in military jargon.
"If at any time I thought we were going out to flathat, I would have put a stop to the flight." he said.
Defense witnesses: Marine pilot a 'natural'
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