A Florida Prosecutor Wins a Landmark Manslaughter Case Against a Reckless Pilot
03/16/1981 at 01:00 AM EST
One warm afternoon in March 1978 bathers at Florida's Big Pine Key, 35 miles from Key West, were stunned by the sight of a twin-engine Cessna flying in low, erratic circles over the beach and adjoining campground. The plane buzzed a local motel, then headed back toward the water, flying at times within 30 feet of the ground. Seconds after it passed over the beach, the right wing tip snagged the water. The plane cartwheeled into the ocean, caught fire and exploded. Pilot James Pritchett, a wealthy real estate agent, suffered a dislocated hip, cuts and a few broken ribs. But his passenger, Darlene Bye, a young musician, was killed instantly.
Last November Pritchett was convicted of manslaughter in her death, the first pilot in U.S. history to be found guilty of criminal negligence for reckless flying. "Pritchett's conviction has made a more profound contribution to aviation safety than all the reforms of the last 15 years," says Jack Milavic, an inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration. It was the result of persistence by an assistant state's attorney in Key West, Richard Fowler, 32, who had never before brought a manslaughter charge to trial. "Fowler took a case that had no criminal law whatsoever supporting it," says Capt. Larry Meggs of the Monroe County sheriff's office, "and he won it." Last week Pritchett, 44, was sentenced to five years in prison. He is currently free on $5,000 bond pending his appeal, which Milavic expects to be aggressively supported by the airline pilots' associations. "The pilots' associations will try to come down pretty hard on the FAA because of this," says Milavic. "Pilots are sanctimonious asses who are overprotective of one another. I should know—I'm a pilot myself."
FAA regulations governing pilot safety are notoriously weak. In 1978-79 the FAA reported that at least 61 people were killed due to "unsafe acts" by pilots. A bill is now before Congress that would impose criminal penalties on pilots who violate the pertinent FAA regulations, which now provide only for fines up to $1,000 and license revocations. "All we can do is give a slap on the wrist," says Milavic, who helped Fowler prepare the case. "Rick wanted to take criminal action to deter future pilot negligence."
Fowler's interest in the case began with a lab report showing that Pritchett had traces of cocaine in his blood. The pilot later admitted he also had been drinking until 2 a.m. the night before the accident. At the time of the crash Pritchett was flying with an expired medical certificate, and the plane, which belonged to a Georgia charter firm of which Pritchett was an official, had an outdated inspection sticker. "The cocaine wasn't the determining factor," says Fowler, "but it contributed to my decision to file charges against Pritchett. We've all seen bad pilots at one time or another; this fellow just happened to kill someone."
To research the case, Fowler, who had never been inside a small plane, asked Milavic and FAA officials to give him a "walk through" course in pilot safety. "They explained the difficulties a pilot encounters in making a turn and why a turn at low altitudes is particularly dangerous," Fowler recalls. "Your altitude in a turn will vary up or down—you have no room for error." Fowler had another reason for such careful preparation: One of Pritchett's lawyers and the presiding judge were both experienced pilots, having flown in World War II. His doggedness paid off. After deliberating for less than 90 minutes, the jury returned the guilty verdict. Milavic recalls only one other case involving a private pilot charged with manslaughter, but it involved possible error by an air controller, and the pilot was only fined. "Fowler's case is significant because there were no outside factors except the pilot's own actions," he says.
Meanwhile the dead girl's parents, who sat right behind Fowler during the three-day trial, have settled out of court with Pritchett for $20,000. Fowler, whose wife, Sandra, is a public defender in Key West, thinks the case will do some good, whatever the outcome of the appeal. "The vast majority of pilots are responsible," he says, "but those who aren't should be held accountable for their actions. If nothing else, some hotdog pilots out there are going to think twice before they endanger the lives of others."