Monday, June 6, 2005
C.A. Affirms Homicide Conviction in Deaths of Pilots
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The homicide conviction of the man who set the fire that killed two air tanker pilots near Hopland, south of Ukiah, four years ago has been affirmed by the First District Court of Appeal.
Div. Three Thursday rejected Franklin Neal Brady’s claim that Mendocino Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Tauber gave erroneous instructions on probable cause and improperly excluded evidence that the deaths resulted from causes other than the fire, including proof that one of the pilots had a higher blood alcohol level than allowed by federal aviation regulations.
Brady was acquitted of two counts of murder, but convicted of recklessly causing a fire resulting in death and of manufacturing and conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine .
Pilots Lawrence Groff and Lars Stratte were killed when their planes collided as they fought the blaze. Investigators linked the fire to the operation of a methamphetamine lab near the fire pit where they believe the blaze began, and charged Brady and Richard Mortensen. The two were tried jointly, but Mortensen was convicted only on the drug charges.
Brady admitted knowing that the premises were used to make methamphetamine, but denied being part of the operation. The fire, he claimed, resulted not from drug manufacturing but when sparks flew after he tried to build a fire—the place had no electricity—in order to take a bath.
The First District panel upheld Mortensen’s conviction in an unpublished portion of its opinion. Brady was sentenced to 13 years, eight months in prison, and Mortensen to seven years.
Justice Stuart Pollak, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the standard criminal jury instructions on proximate cause—while not as clear as the new “plain English” civil instructions—were correct and sufficiently clear in the context of the instructions as a whole.
The justice also said Tauber was correct in excluding evidence that Groff flew with a blood alcohol level just above the allowed .04 percent, saying that the evidence was irrelevant in the absence of proof that Groff was too impaired to fly or that his alcohol use was actually linked to the crash.
Nor, Pollak said, did the trial judge err in keeping out evidence concerning other conditions, including the fact that Groff had become disoriented and dehydrated while attempting to fight the fire.
“In the present case, as we have previously stated, the jury was properly instructed that it could find Brady guilty only if it found that the deaths of the two pilots were foreseeable consequences of starting the fire,” the justice said.
“Brady does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support that finding, and evidence that Groff had become dehydrated and disoriented could not have affected that finding,” the jurist wrote.
The case is People v. Brady, 05 S.O.S. 2657.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company