LOS ANGELES – A federal judge in Los Angeles on Friday dismissed an indictment charging a dive boat captain with manslaughter in the deaths of 34 people in a 2019 fire aboard a vessel anchored off the coast southern California.
The decision came on the third anniversary of one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent US history, when the Conception caught fire on September 2, 2019, near an offshore island. from Santa Barbara. All 33 passengers and one crew member who were trapped in a bunk room below deck died.
Capt. Jerry Boylan, 68, failed to follow safety rules, federal prosecutors said. He was charged with “misconduct, negligence and inattention” in failing to train his crew, carry out fire drills and have a roving night watchman on the boat when the fire broke out. declared.
But the indictment did not say Boylan acted with gross negligence, which U.S. District Judge George Wu said was a required element to prove the crime of manslaughter of a sailor. and must be listed in the indictment.
Prosecutors will seek Justice Department approval to appeal the decision, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles. They can also request a new indictment alleging gross negligence.
Boylan and four other crew members, who were all sleeping on an upper deck, escaped the burning boat after the captain made a panicked call.
Surviving crew members said the fire prevented them from trying to reach those trapped in the bunk room. The flames blocked a stairwell and a small hatch that were the only exits below deck, officials said. All 34 died from smoke inhalation.
The decision is the second recent blow to prosecutors in this case.
Boylan was initially charged with 34 counts of sailor manslaughter, each of which could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Defense attorneys sought to dismiss those charges because they argued the deaths were all the result of a single incident and not separate crimes.
Before that issue could be argued in court, prosecutors obtained a superseding indictment in July charging Boylan with a single count of sailor manslaughter that alleged his negligence caused the 34 deaths. If convicted, he would have faced a maximum of 10 years in prison.
The defense also argued that the single-count indictment should be dismissed because it did not allege Boylan acted with gross negligence, which they argued was a required element of the crime.
Federal prosecutors countered that under the pre-Civil War statute, designed to hold steamship captains and crew responsible for maritime disasters, they only had to show that Boylan acted with a mere negligence, a single standard for a crime.
Prosecutors cited language in the law which states that captains and other boat employees can face up to 10 years in prison for “misconduct, negligence or inattention to his duties on such a vessel, the life of any person is destroyed ”.
Wu said case law on the manslaughter of a sailor was inconsistent in appeals courts. Only a New Orleans appeals court had upheld the requirement that only simple negligence had to be proven to secure a conviction.
Robert Weisberg, a criminal law professor at Stanford University, blamed Congress in part for drafting the law in an “ad hoc and inconsistent” manner.
The judge’s decision was reasonable to rely on other appellate opinions that found gross negligence to be a required element for the similar crime of manslaughter, Weisberg said. California and many other state courts also require proof of gross negligence for manslaughter.
The difference between the two types of negligence is often seen as whether someone should be slapped with civil damages or criminally punished for their behavior.
Simple negligence would be if someone caused harm without ever considering the risks they took. It would be gross negligence if they considered the possible consequences but acted anyway. Gross negligence often incorporates an element of recklessness.
“The defendant has presented compelling reasons why the statute should be construed to require gross negligence as a necessary element of conviction (and charge), and the government’s reasons to the contrary do not persuade the court to the contrary,” said writes Wu.
As a 10-year homicide case, Wu noted the Supreme Court was reluctant to allow prosecutors to be negligent instead of the tougher standard of showing a defendant acted. with criminal intent.
Federal safety investigators blamed the ship’s owners, Truth Aquatics Inc., for a lack of oversight, though they weren’t charged with a crime.
Truth Aquatics sued in federal court under a maritime law provision designed to avoid payments to victims’ families. Family members of the dead have filed lawsuits against boat owners Glen and Dana Fritzler and the company.
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. judge throws a charge of manslaughter in the fire of a boat who killed people