A Trial in Brazil, With Testimony on Long Island
Demonstrators outside the courthouse demanded that two American pilots be held accountable. NYT) The hushed atmosphere in this little room on Long Island belies the catastrophic matters at stake, for this is a trial stemming from a 2006 air collision at 37,000 feet on a clear day in another hemisphere that left 154 people dead, their bodies scattered in the dense rain forest of Brazil.
Two planes collided that day, a jetliner and a new commuter jet that was being delivered to its buyer. The large jet crashed; the small one was brought to an emergency landing by its two pilots, both of them American, both from Long Island. The pilots, along with several air-traffic controllers, were criminally charged in Brazil with negligence for causing the crash, but the two Americans have declined to return to that country.
So the trial has come to them, and to Central Islip. On Wednesday one of them took the stand - or, at least, a virtual stand - in his own defense. The second is to testify on Thursday. They agreed to testify, saying they did nothing but fly professionally under dire circumstances; if convicted, they seem certain to fight extradition. A prison sentence could be as long as four years.
It is not unusual for witnesses to testify on video in the United States for a foreign case. But officials with the Justice Department and the State
Department were hard pressed to cite another instance in which an American citizen on trial in a distant nation was given his or her day in court here, in the United States, through a little silver camera like the one that watched the pilot Jan Paul Paladino motionlessly on Wednesday.
It was an almost surreal day of questions haltingly asked and answered. On the screen, a waiter with a tray and a bow tie could be seen serving small cups of coffee to those in a makeshift courtroom in the justice ministry headquarters in Brasília, where relatives of the dead have staged protests and demanded punishment for the two pilots. Technical problems plagued a session that lasted hours. The video connection broke down repeatedly, and the listeners on Long Island, including the pilots' Brazilian lawyer, learned that Portuguese turns into an indecipherable rumble if the hook-up is not perfect.
"I can't hear," said Mr. Paladino, who is from Westhampton Beach. "I'm sorry, forgive me; the audio's very difficult," he grimaced, as a Brazilian judge, Murilo Mendes, pressed ahead with question after question about how two planes could have ended up in the same spot in a deserted sky.
Treaty provisions permit this proceeding, and procedures are in place. The Justice Department works as a coordinator of sorts to make the legal sessions possible. There were the familiar trappings: an American flag in the Long Island frame (on the right screen in Central Islip) and the Brazilian flag behind Judge Mendes (left screen).
The proceedings began with the judge's statement that Mr. Paladino had the right to remain silent. The camera in Brasília panned the room once, showing an orderly crowd awaiting the latest in a trial that has proceeded in fits and starts since the fall of 2007. The testimony of Mr. Paladino and the other pilot on the Embraer Legacy 600, Joseph Lepore, is to be the last at their trial. A decision from the judge is expected in April.
The nightmare collision, the unlikely survival of the passengers on the smaller plane and the devastating fate of the Gol Airlines Boeing 737 in the dense Amazon rain forest drew wide attention. A writer who contributes to The New York Times, Joe Sharkey, happened to be on board the Legacy writing an article for another publication. He detailed his harrowing experience on The Times's front page, and was questioned by officials along with other surviving passengers in 2006. He is not involved in the criminal case.
In Brazil, the story of the death of children, a medical student, a captain of industry and others aboard the Boeing 737 has been something of a national obsession, tinged at times with rumor and anti-Americanism.
As in many trials, there were moments of high drama on Wednesday. The judge spoke firmly. A pause. The translator: "Your profession, please."
Another pause. Mr. Paladino, a pale 38-year-old, sat up a little straighter. "Pilot," he said.
The Brazilian prosecutors have accused the American pilots of committing an offense similar to criminally negligent homicide by flying when their radar might have been off, failing to follow their flight plan and flying at the wrong altitude. The pilots say they had no warning of any malfunction and followed the instructions of air-traffic controllers.
When those charges of carelessness came up, as they did repeatedly, Mr. Paladino spoke firmly as he described what it was like in the cockpit of the smaller plane, with seven aboard, as something rocked it in the air.
Still, it was not quite the confident voice pilots use over the public address system, as he spoke looking squarely at the big flat-screen television. "I wasn't even sure if it even involved another aircraft," he said as he described the growing emergency. With the equipment seeming to be working and the plane on course, he said, another plane out there over the Amazon seemed impossible.
"I could not believe," he said, "that an aircraft would be involved given all the things I just mentioned, and we would still be alive."
But if there were those moments that brought a stark reminder of what this proceeding was about, there were many more moments when the technology seemed to conspire against real emotion. Mr. Paladino gave an impassioned explanation to rebut the claim that the pilots might have turned off the transponder that sends a signal to keep track of planes.
Again, a pause. Then the translator: "O.K. There was a break-up in your answer."
In the courthouse, Mr. Paladino repeated himself again as he described those events over a faraway rain forest.
Next to Mr. Paladino was his Brazilian lawyer, Theo Dias, and next to him was Joel R. Weiss, his Long Island lawyer. Mr. Paladino described the last moment before the crash. He had spoken routinely to an air-traffic controller. Then, he said, "I started to transmit again, and then the collision occurred."
On the television in the small room, the translator was back from Brasília. "I'm sorry, repeat that, please," he said.