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Cable Car Case Dropped in Italy

July 13, 1998

TRENTO, Italy (AP) _ To the dismay of victims’ families, an Italian judge on Monday threw out a manslaughter case against the crew of a U.S. Marine jet that severed a ski gondola cable in the Alps, killing 20 people.

Judge Carlo Ancona ruled that Italian courts lacked jurisdiction under a NATO treaty. He also dismissed the case against three top U.S. military officials at the Aviano base in northern Italy, where the jet was stationed.

Trento Prosecutor Francantonio Granero had pushed for indictments in Italy against the four-man crew, even though the Rome government had acquiesced to American prosecution in the case.

Two of the crewmen face a military trial in the United States and the other two have been cleared.

``My hopes for justice have been set back,″ said Klaus Stampfl, 29, whose mother died in the Feb. 3 accident.

Alberto Mioni, a lawyer for the families of two Italian victims, said he was ``extremely disappointed″ by the decision.

In the United States, lawyers and families of the crew members expressed relief.

``We are glad to have that potential burden lifted,″ said Dave Beck of Knoxville, Tenn., the civilian defense lawyer for Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, the plane’s navigator. ``Now we have some monumental problems to take care of trying to get a fair trial″ in the United States.

On Friday, a Marine general ordered Capt. Richard J. Ashby, the jet’s pilot, and Schweitzer tried on manslaughter charges in a U.S. military court.

Ashby and Schweitzer, both 30, are accused by U.S. military prosecutors of flying too low through a mountain pass in their EA-6B Prowler. They could get life in prison if convicted.

Lt. Gen. Peter Pace, commander of Marine Corps Forces Atlantic, dismissed charges against the two officers in the back seat of the jet, Capts. Chandler P. Seagraves and William L. Raney II.

The incident sparked a crisis in U.S.-Italian relations and demands by some for a closing of U.S. bases in Italy.

The United States insisted it had sole jurisdiction in the case because of the NATO treaty; Washington maintains the jet was flying under the auspices of the alliance when the incident occurred.

Granero, the Italian prosecutor, argued that the plane violated the NATO treaty’s mandated flight patterns, and therefore the flight should be considered a U.S. mission _ which would have given Italy jurisdiction. Granero also challenged the constitutionality of the treaty.

He said he would decide whether to appeal after reading the full decision, which was expected within a few days.

Lawyers said Ancona limited arguments to the question of jurisdiction in Monday’s closed 90-minute hearing.

Evidence showed the plane severed the ski cable at 370 feet, well below the minimum allowed altitude of 1,000 feet.

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