Marine's Acquittal in Cable Car Disaster Strains American-Italian Relations

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The Camp Lejeune military jury trying a Marine pilot on charges that he recklessly flew his jet into the cables holding an Italian ski gondola fired a shot on Thursday that is bound to be heard around the world. The jury acquitted Capt. Richard Ashby on all charges for the killing of the 20 people in the gondola -- two Poles, seven Germans, five Belgians, three Italians, two Austrians and one Dutch. Conviction could have put Ashby behind bars for life. The initial reaction of the families of the victims in the courtroom was shock -- a sensation that will also soon rock observers and politicians across the Atlantic. “Expect total outrage,” says TIME Rome correspondent Greg Burke.

The initial expectation had been that Ashby would be found guilty of “flat-hatting,” or reckless flying, in what seemed to be an open-and-shut case. But the defense convincingly argued that the ski lift was not on Ashby’s official map, that the jet’s altitude gauge malfunctioned and that Ashby believed speed and altitude restrictions in the area to be more lenient than they were. None of the defense arguments will make much of a difference to the local residents or to the large segment of Italy’s population that is left-leaning and opposed to an American military presence, says Burke. “The verdict instead is bound to complicate relations between the U.S. and Italy,” says Burke, and will make matters more difficult for the current Italian prime minister, Massimo D’Alema, a leftist himself who nonetheless wants good relations with the U.S. “The verdict will not lead to a closing of the Aviano air base -- it has been a key base for the various Balkan missions,” says Burke, “but it could lead to a much closer surveillance of how the base operates.”