ValuJet Crash: Crime Or Error?

In its first full day of deliberations Friday in the ValuJet trial, a jury will consider whether a maintenance contractor, SabreTech, should be found guilty of conspiracy in the fatal 1996 crash.

The federal trial marks the first time criminal charges have ever been filed in a commercial jet crash, and the jury must determine whether human error or criminal conduct caused the accident, reports CBS News Correspondent Jeffrey Kofman.

All 110 people aboard were killed when the DC-9 slammed into the Everglades. SabreTech, ValuJet's maintenance contractor, says the crash was an accident that sounded a wake-up call for the whole industry. But prosecutors say the company is "in denial" about its role in delivering hazardous oxygen generators to the plane.

If convicted, SabreTech faces up to nearly $6 million in fines plus restitution. SabreTech and former employees Daniel Gonzalez and Eugene Florence are charged with lying on repair records leading up to the crash.

At the heart of the case are oxygen generators removed by SabreTech from other ValuJet planes and delivered to the ill-fated flight without any markings indicating they were hazardous waste.

Crash investigators blamed the explosive-tipped generators for starting a cargo fire that spread to the jet's cabin.

Florence signed a work card stating he had installed shipping caps on generators but admitted days after the crash that he had not. Gonzalez was accused of pressing Florence and other mechanics to sign generator paperwork at a session attended by ValuJet representatives eager to get a new plane in service.

Gonzalez was charged with signing paperwork for a de-icing project that the prosecution contends was not actually done on an Aserca Airlines jet in December 1995.

The Aserca work card supported the prosecution's charge that SabreTech created a dollar-driven corporate culture of lies, rushed work and skipped assignments.

"Fundamentally, this is a case about lying. One of the lies turned out to be about something very important," Assistant U.S. Attorney Caroline Miller said Wednesday. "SabreTech's urge to have its business done overtook other considerations, including safety considerations."

Jane Moscowitz, a defense attorney for Florence, said mistakes were made but the crash was a tragedy, not a crime. She described Florence as a "good man" working in good faith to secure the generators.

A total of 144 oxygen generators delivered by SabreTech to the flight were blamed by crash investigators for fueling a cargo fire that spread into the passenger cabin during the 11-minute flight.

Moscowitz highlighted 45 mechanical problems reported on the 27-year-old jet in its final five months, including five problems with the autopilot during the week of the crash.

If convicted, Florence faces up to 15 years in prison, while Gonzalez faces up to 10 years.

SabreTech also faces 17 counts of hazardous materials violations and ould face up to $5.8 million in fines plus restitution to victims' families. SabreTech, which is no longer is in business, also has been charged in state court with murder and manslaughter in the crash.