Inquest: Pilots’ attack on convoy was criminal
LONDON – A British coroner ruled Friday that an attack by two American pilots that killed a British soldier in Iraq was a criminal assault, contradicting a U.S. finding that the incident captured in a dramatic cockpit video was a tragic accident.The finding has no direct legal consequences but the case has stirred tensions between Britain and the United States, which declined to send the pilots to give evidence and repeatedly refused to release the cockpit recording. The recording was eventually leaked to a British newspaper and broadcast across the world.In the tape, one U.S. pilot says, “We’re in jail dude,” after realizing his team has killed a member of the coalition forces.Oxfordshire Assistant Deputy Coroner Andrew Walker did not say whether he would recommend a criminal investigation, and the widow of Lance Cpl. Matty Hull, 25, said she would not pursue criminal charges against the pilots.Walker said there was no evidence the attack that killed Hull resulted from either self-defense or an honest mistake. He did not offer a detailed explanation of his finding, but said the Idaho Air National Guard pilot who fired the fatal shots acted outside the law by failing to “properly identify the vehicles and seek clearance before opening fire.””The attack on the convoy amounted to an assault,” Walker said. “It was unlawful because there was no lawful reason for it, and in that respect it was criminal.”He criticized the U.S. military for failing to cooperate with his inquiry.The Pentagon extended its condolences to Hull’s family but the U.S. State Department disputed the finding.”We would not agree with the characterization of it as a criminal act,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.The Pentagon said in a statement that the U.S. had shared with British military authorities all the information produced by an American investigation of the incident, and had worked with them to provide Walker with information that was not classified or otherwise protected.The cockpit video captured the attack on March 28, 2003, when two U.S. jets made a deadly mistake in assuming that a British convoy was a caravan of rocket-toting insurgents. Hull was killed and four other British soldiers were wounded.British Staff Cpl. Stuart Matthews, a ground traffic controller, testified ground control never gave permission for the U.S. pilots to fire. The U.S. military has refused to provide the rules of engagement under which the pilots were operating, although it said procedures were followed.Britain’s Ministry of Defense refused to say Friday whether the U.S. pilots violated the separate U.S., British or coalition rules of engagement in place at the time. It also declined to describe those rules.”The (U.S.) investigation determined that the incident took place in a complex combat environment; the pilots followed applicable procedures and processes for engaging targets, believing they were engaging enemy targets,” and “that this was a tragic accident,” the U.S. Central Command said in a statement.The “unlawful killing” ruling is the most serious Walker could have returned.One of the pilots from the 190th Fighter Squadron of the Idaho Air National Guard spotted orange markers on top of the armored vehicles. The markers are routinely used to visually identify coalition forces, but the pilot said they looked like orange rockets.A British military inquiry into the attack said the “lack of passage of positional data and target coordinates between the U.S. pilots and their U.S. ground control elements is worrying.”Three days after the attack, one of the wounded soldiers, Lance Corp. Steven Gerrard, said the U.S. pilot who fired at the British convoy circled after his initial attack and fired a second time. Gerrard called the pilot “a cowboy” who had “no regard for human life” and who had “gone out on a jolly.”Hull’s widow, Susan, said 11 lines of the report into the incident had been blacked out in a copy supplied to the inquest, and has appealed to President Bush to release the details of the military investigation.”I feel we have been badly let down by the Americans,” she said, adding that “lessons must be learned from my husband’s death.”Walker asked for evidence beside the U.S. rules of engagement, including details of the pilots’ training, Hull family lawyer Geraldine McCool said.None of it had been supplied, she said.McCool said the widow and her relatives would not seek criminal charges against the American pilots.Last year, Walker ruled that U.S. forces in Iraq unlawfully killed a British TV journalist, Terry Lloyd, by shooting him in the head as he lay in the back of a makeshift ambulance in the opening days of the war. Walker has asked the attorney general to bring to justice those responsible for the death. The Crown Prosecution Service is considering the case.