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FORT WORTH – In an unusual trial for a company accused of a crime, Boeing officials were arraigned Thursday in a federal courtroom in Fort Worth for the company’s actions that led to two plane crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia in 2018 and 2019. which killed 346 passengers and crew. .
Boeing has been charged with conspiracy to defraud the US government for allegedly violating safety rules when it introduced its 737 MAX jets. The sentencing before U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor took place two years after the company entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which halted prosecution of the criminal case before the company ever formally entered a plea to the charges. did.
The agreement is being challenged by the families of the victims, who say they were not involved in the negotiation process. O’Connor ruled last fall that the victims’ families deserve to be heard in court.
These family members filled the courtrooms, traveling from around the world to testify about the impact of the crashes that took the lives of their partners, siblings, parents and children.
Paul Njoroge choked back tears as he spoke about the loss of his wife and three children who died along with his mother-in-law in the Ethiopia crash. His youngest was just 9 months old.
“I will never know what would have happened to my children,” he told the judge.
The size and placement of the engines on the 737 MAX planes were changed from previous models, and a new flight control function was added to correct the plane’s nose in certain conditions. The flight control function was known to potentially kick in during takeoff, which apparently occurred in the crash, court documents say, but Boeing executives withheld that pertinent information from the Federal Aviation Administration when they certified the new plane in 2017, in a Attempt to save tens of millions of dollars by not being required to provide additional training for pilots. In January 2021, Boeing made a deal with the US Department of Justice, which waives prosecution for the crime if the company meets its conditions, including federal supervision, monetary fines and payment to the families of the victims.
But the families sued, arguing that the agreement was a “sweetheart deal” made behind closed doors, and that they should have been allowed a seat at that table under the Crime Victims Rights Act. The families want the court to appoint an independent monitor to verify the company’s compliance and for increased transparency in the DOJ’s dealings with the company. Lawyers for Boeing and the Justice Department argued in court against the appointment of an independent monitor, saying the hidden prosecution agreement was working well and the company was complying with the order.
The families argued that Boeing knew about problems with the plane after the first crash and failed to prevent the second crash from happening. In a statement after the first crash, Boeing said the 737 MAX was “as safe as any plane that has ever flown in the sky.”
“Boeing acted callously, recklessly and, yes, criminally,” Paul Cassell, a lawyer for the families, told the judge. “For a few dollars more, Boeing committed the deadliest corporate crime in US history.”
The families of the crash victims have testified one by one, often in tearful and heart-wrenching detail, about the lives of their loved ones and the hole left behind by their deaths. Martin Ike Riffel and his wife Susan came from Redding, California to talk about the loss of both sons Melvin and Bennett who died in the Ethiopia crash in 2019. old daughter Emma, took the stand. Emma was born two months after her father’s death.
“Our lives have just begun,” Brittney Riffel told the judge. “And now Emma will never get a chance to know her father.”
On Thursday, Boeing pleaded not guilty to the fraud charges.
“We will never forget the lives lost in these accidents,” a Boeing spokesman said in a statement. “We have made broad and deep changes across our company, and made changes to the design of the 737 MAX to ensure that accidents like this never happen again.”
O’Connor is expected to rule soon on the terms of the release, including whether to appoint an independent monitor.
Disclosure: Boeing Company has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.