A man accused of breaking a ticket agent's neck in a bout of air rage was acquitted of assault Tuesday in a case that focused attention on rising tempers among the nation's airline passengers.
John C. Davis claimed he acted in self-defense and only after the agent shoved his wife as she tried to retrieve their 18-month-old daughter, who had wandered up a passageway leading to a plane. He faced up to 10 years in prison.
"I'm just glad it's over," Davis said. "During the course of the trial, our faith in the system was beginning to waver. Those 12 people restored it."
CBS News Correspondent Jim Axelrod reports the 1999 confrontation at Newark International Airport was one of the most serious in a series of air rage incidents blamed on flight delays, crowding, cramped seats and other frustrations.
The Continental Airlines ticket agent, Angelo Sottile of Kearny, N.J., was in a coma for five days and has lost 80 percent of his neck mobility.
The dispute began when Davis and 10 other family members waited for two hours before boarding a flight to Orlando, Fla., on their way to Walt Disney World.
Davis' wife, Victoria, testified that Sottile stopped her from getting their daughter, Kayla, from the passageway. Davis said he confronted Sottile after the agent shoved his wife.
Prosecution witnesses said Davis, 31, of Fredricksburg, Va., slammed Sottile headfirst onto the floor after enduring a two-hour delay in a crowded section of Terminal C at the Newark airport.
But defense witnesses, including Davis and his family members, insisted that Sottile attacked first by grabbing Davis' neck, and that they fell to the floor together after Davis put Sottile in a bear hug.
Sottile, 52, testified that he could not remember what happened. He is now employed part-time as a postal worker. Sottile, who has sued Davis and the airport operator, said only that he was disappointed by the verdict.
"I feel bad for him. I wish him the best," said Davis, an assistant manager at a steel plant in Fredricksburg, Va.
Continental spokesman Bob McHugh said Davis has been banned from flying with the airline.
"It is a sad day when someone can break another person's neck in anger and walk away unpunished. There is no way to justify this kind of life-threatening violence, ever," McHugh said.
The incident will reinforce Continental's policies on employee safety, McHugh said, but "no kind of training can protect against something so vicious and unexpected."
But with frustration wafting through airliners now, the way cigarette smoke did a generation ago, air travel experts like David Stempler are not surprised at the verdict. "Most of the people in the jury have experienced these kinds of delays and can certainly put themselves...in the position of this father and husband."
Defense lawyer Anthony Pope Jr. said Davis never intended to hrt Sottile. He also questioned accounts by prosecution witnesses: "You can't pick up a human being and throw him to the ground. This isn't the WWF."
Continental says while it believes justice was not served in this case, it was not about "air rage," and had nothing to do with the frustrations of air travel. Despite what many consumers might say, the airline maintains the Newark airport dispute could have happened anywhere.
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