Marine Pilot Gets 6 Months

A military jury Monday sentenced a Marine pilot to six months in prison and dismissal from the service for helping destroy a videotape after a fatal ski gondola accident in Italy.

Capt. Richard Ashby, 32, of Mission Viejo, Calif., was also ordered to forfeit all pay and allowance for his conviction last week on charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct.

Jurors deliberated about two hours today before issuing the sentence.

There was no sound in the courtroom as the verdict was read. Ashby, who stood at attention during the reading, is the first crewmember to receive a prison sentence for last year's accident.

In closing arguments earlier Monday, prosecutor Maj. Stu Couch told the jury of seven Marine officers that Ashby deserved two years in prison and dismissal, as well as forfeiture of pay and allowances.

A defense attorney, Capt. Jon Shelburne, asked the jurors to put themselves in Ashby's position and recall mistakes they have made and "wished you could go back and undo it."

Prison time was appropriate for people who commit rape or larceny but "wasn't even in the ball park" for Ashby, Shelburne said in his closing argument. "We make mistakes," he said. "We learn from our mistakes."

Ashby was at the controls of an EA-6B Prowler anti-radar jet that cut the cable on Feb. 3, 1998, at Cavalese, Italy. Twenty people died when the gondola plunged 370 feet to the ground.

Ashby was acquitted in March of 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The verdict enraged and embittered relatives of the victims, as well as Italian leaders, who said they would explore options in pursuing their own case against the crew.

The jet's navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, 31, of Westbury, N.Y., pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and was sentenced to dismissal from the service but no prison time.

Once Ashby landed the crippled jet at the NATO air base at Aviano, Italy, he removed the videotape, which was made earlier in the flight and was intended as a souvenir.

He testified that he then gave it to Schweitzer at the navigator's request. Schweitzer said he later threw it into a bonfire because he was afraid his face was on the tape and could be used by Italian media.

While acknowledging that he helped get rid of the tape, Ashby denied he had a criminal intent - impeding the investigation into the accident.

Two back-seat officers in the jet were charged with involuntary manslaughter soon after the accident but the charges were dismissed. One of those officers, Capt. Chandler Seagraves, told investigators about the tape after he was granted immunity from prosecution.

Base officials say Ashby could be taken into custody as early as today and begin his sentence tonight in the brig at Camp Lejeune.

Ashby's attorney can still ask the judge for a deferral in which case Ashby's sentence could be reduced.