CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C., March 4 -- A military jury has acquitted Capt. Richard Ashby of all charges that he violated military law when he flew into a pair of gondola cables at an Italian ski resort last year, killing 20 people. The eight-member jury deliberated for 7 hours on Wednesday and today before reaching its verdict. Ashby, of Mission Viejo, Calif., had been charged with 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and destruction of property. In a brief appearance before reporters after the verdict, Ashby said: 'This has been a tragedy for all involved. My heart and my thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims of this tragedy.' John Eaves, attorney for several of the victims' relatives, many of whom attended the court-martial, said: 'The families don't understand the verdict. One said there is no justice in the world. These people want some sense of resolution and some sense of closure.' Ashby's attorney, Frank Spinner, said the verdict showed 'this was a terrible, tragic training accident.' He said the government should drop charges against Ashby's navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, who is scheduled for court-martial later this month in connection with the accident. In Boston, Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema said he was 'disconcerted' by the verdict, and that Italy is not seeking 'summary justice but cannot allow itself to say to the nation that there is no responsibility.' According to the Italian news agency ANSA, D'Alema told reporters traveling with him in Boston, 'In coping with a slaughter on such a scale there is the need, and the duty as well, for justice.'
The White House declined comment on Ashby's acquittal. Press secretary Joe Lockhart said President Clinton may discuss the matter during a previously scheduled summit Friday at the White House with D'Alema if D'Alema 'wants to bring this up.' State Department spokesman James Foley said 'our strong and open relationship with Italy has allowed us to move through this matter,' and pledged that the United States would handle any subsequent civil claims 'as expeditiously as possible.' Prosecutors claimed Ashby intentionally flew too low and too fast in the accident that caused 20 people to fall to their deaths. The government called more than four dozen witnesses during the 3 -week trial. If he had been convicted on all charges, Ashby could have been sentenced to 206 years in a military prison. Defense attorneys said his map did not show the gondola cables and that his instruments were malfunctioning, so he had no way of knowing the cables were there or how low he was flying. Presiding Judge Lt. Col. Robert Nunley had instructed jurors on Wednesday that to convict Ashby, they needed to find that he showed 'gross, reckless, wanton deliberate disregard for the foreseeable results' of his conduct. The accident occurred Feb. 3, 1998, when the EA-6B Prowler streaked across the Italian Alps, striking a pair of gondola cables strung about 400 feet above the ground. Nineteen skiers, including a 12-year-old boy from Poland, and the gondola operator plunged to their deaths on Mount Cermis. ---
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