Court-Martial Begins for Italian Cable Car Disaster

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Critics of the U.S. military on both sides of the Atlantic are focusing their attention on Camp Lejeune, N.C., as the first court-martial gets under way for the ski gondola accident that killed 20 last year in Italy. Captain Richard Ashby, the pilot of the Marine plane that sliced the gondola's supporting cables, faces 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter that could put him in prison for life. The case is highly charged, not only because of the gruesomeness of the incident, but also because it has awakened the latent political resentment many Italians harbor against the U.S. military presence in their country. Realizing the potential hazards, the Pentagon will be taking care to present a fair trial. "The military will be acting here the same way as if the accident had occurred in Vail," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson.

The defense will strongly argue that the ski lift cable was not marked on maps, while prosecutors will maintain that the pilot was obligated to fly at a minimum of 1,000 feet and the cable was hung at about 370 feet. "The prosecution's argument will be that yardsticks don't lie," says Thompson. Whatever the trial's outcome, many of Ashby's colleagues have already weighed the matter in their minds, and their judgment does not bode well for the pilot. "Many other Marine pilots have been angered by the accident and have concluded the crew was hot-dogging," says Thompson. "Their consensus is for punishment."