The family of Capt. Richard Ashby cheered in the courtroom at the Camp Lejeune Marine base when the verdict was announced. Ashby, 31, of Mission Viejo, Calif., had faced a possible sentence of 206 years if he had been convicted of all charges.
"I'm sorry," military prosecutor Maj. Stu Couch whispered to weeping relatives of the victims, who had been flown to the United States this week to see the verdict.
CBS News Correspondent David Martin reports the jurors deliberated for 7 and 1/2 hours Wednesday and Thursday before deciding on Ashby's fate.
Testimony began Feb. 8 and ended Tuesday.
"Captain Ashby is certainly free to go," said the judge, Lt. Col. Robert Nunley.
Ashby had been charged with 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count each of destroying government property, destroying private property, dereliction of duty and failure to plan the flight properly.
"The families' reaction is shock," said John Arthur Eaves, who represents relatives of the German victims. He said several family members lamented that there is "no justice in the world."
Some hugged and wept after the verdict, and Eaves said several lamented that there is "no justice in the world."
"Basically, they're in shock about this and don't understand how this could have happened and how he's not being held responsible," Eaves said. "However, they do agree with the defense that there's many responsible parties here."
He said the U.S. government still has not compensated the families, yet appropriated $20 million to pay for damages to the Italian ski lift.
Ashby addressed reporters in a brief statement following the verdict.
"All I really want to say is that this has been a tragedy for all involved, and my heart and thoughts and prayers go out to all the families of the victims," Ashby said.
Ashby's attorney, Frank Spinner, told reporters Thursday that the Marine Corps and Congress need to look at how the case was handled.
|Capt. Richard Ashby, right, and his lawyer. (CBS)|
Prosecutors argued Wednesday that Ashby was "outright dangerous," flying too low and too fast when his jet severed the cable on the gondola and sent the skiers plunging to their deaths.
In return, the defense argued "it was a training accident and no more."
Prosecutors and defense attorneys both acknowledged the Mount Cermis ski lift wasn't on the government map issued to Ashby. His attorneys also said the radar altimeter on Ashby's E-6B Prowler malfunctioned and that he experienced an optical illusion that made him think he was flying higher than he really was. In addition, attorneys said Ashby had not been given the proper speed and altitude restrictions before he began his flight.
"You can't avoid what you can't see," Spinner told the jury. "This was an accident waiting to happen."
Two Poles, seven Germans, five Belgians, three Italians, two Austrians and one Dutch person died in the accident. Attorneys for the victims are seeking damage payments from the U.S. government.
The accident caused an uproar in Europe and strained relations between Italy and the United States. People living in the Alpine ski area said they had long complained about low-flying jets from Aviano air base and their "Top Gun" antics.
Italians were shocked by the verdict.
"We had said before that U.S. justice couldn't handle the case, and we were right," said lawyer Giuseppe Pontrelli, head of a citizens' group formed after the Feb. 3, 1998, tragedy. "We had largely predicted a verdict like this, it's not unexpected."
The head of the defense committee in the lower house of parliament, Valdo Spini, said he was "disconcerted and indignant." The verdict, he said, "does not render justice for the innocent victims."
An Italian prosecutor, Franantonio Granero, opened an investigation in hopes of prosecuting the crew in Italy. But an Italian court overruled him last year, saying the United States had jurisdiction under a NATO treaty.
"It's incomprehensible, I wouldn't know what else to call it," Granero said of Ashby's acquittal. "It's absolutely impossible to figure out how they could reach such a verdict."
Thursday's verdict precedes a visit to Washington Friday by Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart declined direct comment on the acquittal, but said the subject possibly could come up during President Clinton's meeting with D'Alema.