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Italy Won't Try Cable-Car Marines

An Italian judge Monday dropped the case against the crew members of a Marine jet that severed a ski gondola cable in the Alps, sending 20 people plummeting to their deaths.

Judge Carlo Ancona ruled that Italian courts lacked jurisdiction in the case.

CBS National Security Correspondent David Martin says military careers will be ruined because of the case, but it's entirely possible that no one will go to jail. The greatest fear of the victims' families, says attorney Tory Armstrong, who is representing them, is that there will be no convictions and no one will be held accountable.

In Italy, Trento Prosecutor Francantonio Granero had pushed for manslaughter charges in Italy against the four-man crew, even though the Rome government had acquiesced to American prosecution in the case.

Ancona's ruling comes three days after a Marine general ordered Capt. Richard J. Ashby, the pilot of jet, and Capt. Joseph P. Schweitzer, the plane's navigator, tried on manslaughter charges.

Ashby and Schweitzer, both 30, are accused by U.S. military prosecutors of flying too low through a mountain pass in their EA-6B jet in the Feb. 3 accident. They could get up to life in prison if convicted in a military court.

Ashby's attorney, Frank Spinner, tells CBS, "The effort to blame all this on Capt. Ashby is really not fair and just."

And attorney Charles Gittins, representing Schweitzer, says, "I think they'll find the evidence is supportive of the defense, not the prosecution."

Lt. Gen. Peter Pace, commander of Marine Corps Forces Atlantic, dismissed charges against the two officers in the backseat of the jet, Capts. Chandler P. Seagraves and William L. Raney II.

The incident sparked a crisis in U.S.-Italian relations and demands by some for a closing of U.S. bases in Italy.

The U.S. insists it has sole jurisdiction in the case because of a NATO treaty. Washington maintains the EA-6B Prowler was flying under the auspices of NATO when the incident occurred.

Granero argued that the plane violated the NATO treaty's mandated flight patterns, and therefore the flight should be considered a U.S. mission which would give Italy jurisdiction. Granero also challenged the constitutionality of the NATO treaty.

Even they had been indicted, it was unlikely the crew would have come to Italy to face trial. Italian law allows defendants to be tried in absentia.

Seeking the indictment, on charges of multiple manslaughter and endangering the safety of transport, was well within Granero's powers; Italian prosecutors have a large measure of independence.

The crew's Italian lawyers said the Americans were victims of a "conflict of power" between the government and the Italian courts.

They are in the "paradoxical situation of a double trial and of a possible double conviction for the same deeds," the lawyers, Bruno and Antonio Malattia, said in a statement Satrday.

Ancona also dropped the case against three top U.S. military officials at the Aviano base in northern Italy, where the jet was stationed.

The defense also argued that it wasn't clear what the altitude restrictions for the area even were, because the U.S. minimum altitude was 1,000 feet and the Italian minimum was 2,000 feet.

Evidence showed the plane struck the cable at 370 feet and had been flying below 400 feet for several miles at speeds of 530-630 mph.

Ancona also dropped the case against three top U.S. military officials at the Aviano base in northern Italy, where the jet was stationed.

It wasn't known in the wake of Pace's ruling Friday whether Ashby, of Mission Viejo, Calif., and Schweitzer, of Westbury, N.Y., would be tried together or separately. The proceedings will be at Camp Lejeune, N.C., but no date was set.

Seagraves, 28, of Nineveh, Ind., and Raney, 26, of Englewood, Colo., had been charged with 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter.