Brazil judge convicts US pilots, suspends prison

AP News
Posted: May 17, 2011 3:00 PM
Brazil judge convicts US pilots, suspends prison

A Brazilian federal judge has convicted two American pilots for their role in an airline crash that killed 154 people, but ordered them to perform more than four years of community service in the U.S. instead of going to prison.

Federal Judge Murilo Mendes said in his ruling that pilots Joseph Lepore of Bay Shore, New York, and Jan Paladino of Westhampton Beach, New York, were negligent for not verifying that anti-collision equipment and a device that would have alerted controllers to their location were functioning in the Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet they were flying. They have both denied that accusation.

Mendes sentenced them late Monday to four years and four months in prison, but commuted that sentence to the same amount of time carrying out unspecified community service in the United States. Mendes also said their pilots' licenses were suspended for the time they would do community service, but it was not clear if that order would be valid outside Brazil.

The failures that led to the 2006 crash have been bitterly disputed by controllers, pilots, judges and aviation officials.

The Americans' business jet collided with a Boeing 737 operated by Gol Lineas Aereas, Intelligentes SA. The smaller plane, owned by Ronkonkoma, New York-based ExcelAire Service Inc., landed safely while the larger jet crashed into the jungle, killing all aboard.

It was Brazil's worst air disaster until a jet ran off a runway less than a year later in Sao Paulo and burst into flames, killing 199 people.

Lepore and Paladino faced charges in Brazil of negligence and endangering air traffic safety for allegedly flying at the wrong altitude and failing to turn on the aircraft's anti-collision system. The judge convicted them of impeding the safe navigation of an airplane.

Theo Dias, a Brazilian lawyer for the American pilots, told G1, the website of the Globo TV network, that he would appeal the ruling. Calls to both Dias were not returned.

Dante D'Aquino, an attorney representing a group of family members of those killed, said he would also appeal, but for a tougher sentence.

"We want to see them carry out their sentence in jail," he said. "A case in which 154 lives were lost is far too serious for the penalty to be community service."

Neither Lepore nor Paladino were in Brazil for the ruling; they have not returned to the South American nation since being allowed to leave about two months after the crash.

In December 2008, a Brazilian air force report concluded that the U.S. pilots might have contributed to the crash by inadvertently turning off the plane's transponder and collision-avoidance system. However, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board blamed the collision mostly on shortcomings in Brazil's military-run air traffic control system.

In March, the pair testified before Mendes via videoconference.

"We knew that the TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) and the transponder were on, but we had no indication that there was anything out there, no display, no warnings, no pop-ups," Lepore testified. "All we knew is that our transponder was working. If there was another plane out there it could have been their equipment that wasn't working."

Paladino also denied any responsibility for the crash.

In October, a military court convicted air traffic controller Jomarcelo Fernandes dos Santos, an air force sergeant, to 14 months in jail for failing to take action when he saw that the Legacy's anti-collision system had been turned off. Four other controllers were acquitted for lack of proof. That conviction is being appealed.

At the time, Joel Weiss, an attorney for the two American pilots, said that "if one wanted to pinpoint the causes of the accident they would be the shortcomings of Brazil's air control system."

"But Santos was the individual who failed to recognize there was no transponder signal and primarily failed to recognize he had two flights in front of him heading toward each other on a collision course," Weiss said.