Defense lawyers for Marines charged in the accident attacked investigators' work Monday at a hearing to decide whether the fliers should be court-martialed. The hearing, the military equivalent of a civilian grand jury proceeding, was to continue Tuesday.
Twenty people plummeted to their deaths when the jet, on a low-level training exercise, sliced the cable that held their gondola 370 feet in the air.
On cross-examination Monday, Special Agent Mark Fallon of the Naval Investigative Service said he couldn't vouch for the chain of evidence after the Feb. 3 accident near Cavalese, Italy.
He agreed with defense lawyer Dave Beck that items were taken out of the EA-6B Prowler anti-radar plane after it was stored in a hangar at the Aviano air base in Italy. Some were documents that were copied and put back.
The crushed gondola was packaged and brought back to this Marine base in eastern North Carolina, but the crate and plastic wrap hasn't been opened.
"You can't tell us anything about the chain of evidenceÂ…proper preservation of evidence," Beck said.
The testimony came during the investigative hearing for the pilot, Capt. Richard Ashby, 30, of Mission Viejo, Calif., and the navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer of Westbury, N.Y.
A hearing already has been held for two back-seat crewmen in the four-seat jet: Capts. Chandler Seagraves, 28, of Nineveh, Ind., and William Raney, 26, of Englewood, Colo.
Each Marine is charged with 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter, 20 counts of negligent homicide, as well as charges of destruction of private property and military property and dereliction of duty. The penalty would be life in prison.
The four fliers have denied flying recklessly. The government contends they were going too fast and hundreds of feet below altitude restrictions.
Written by Estes Thompson