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Dropping of pilots' charges is urged

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2003


NEW ORLEANS -- A military hearing officer recommended Thursday that charges be dismissed against two U.S. pilots who mistakenly dropped a bomb in Afghanistan last spring, killing four Canadian soldiers conducting live-fire exercises.

Col. Patrick Rosenow said that although there was enough evidence to court-martial both pilots for the friendly-fire accident, administrative punishment would maintain "the interests of good order and discipline."

Rosenow presided over the nine-day investigative hearing in January, and his recommendation is a key step in determining whether Majs. Harry Schmidt and William Umbach will face a military trial on the involuntary manslaughter and other charges that could put each of them in prison for up to 64 years.

The final decision is up to Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson, commander of the 8th Air Force. There was no immediate indication when Carlson might rule.

Capt. Denise Kerr, an Air Force spokeswoman, said administrative punishment could include a written reprimand, discharge or the loss of two months' pay.

The Air Force did not release Rosenow's entire report. But according to Charles W. Gittins, Schmidt's lawyer, Rosenow reasoned the Air Force would have difficulty disproving the pilots' main defense: that Schmidt attacked because he believed the enemy was attacking from the ground.

The case had been closely watched in Canada, where many were outraged by the bombing and the two days it took President Bush to apologize. The bomb also wounded eight other Canadians.

Schmidt and Umbach, of the Illinois Air National Guard, said they thought they were under enemy attack April 17 and had never been told allied troops might be holding exercises in the area.

Schmidt, who dropped the bomb, blamed the "fog of war" and said he thought he and Umbach had been ambushed. Defense attorneys also suggested Air Force-issued amphetamines had clouded the pilots' judgment.

But a U.S.-Canadian investigation concluded the pilots were to blame. The head of the investigation testified the men showed "reckless disregard" for standing orders against attacking, ignored briefings about allied troop locations and could have simply flown their F-16s out of the area.

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