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Charges In B-52 Crash Challenged Defense Says Court-Martial Result Of Unlawful Influence

Tue., April 25, 1995

Top Air Force officials used “unlawful command influence” to force the court-martial of a former Fairchild official after last June’s B-52 crash, military defense attorneys contend.

They want the charges against Col. William Pellerin dropped.

A military judge is giving Pellerin’s attorneys three weeks to spell out those claims in detail if they hope to derail the court-martial.

Prosecutors must provide more information on two of three counts of dereliction of duty against Pellerin, the judge, Col. James Van Orsdol, also said.

The court-martial itself was delayed until at least June 6, Air Force officials said Monday.

Pellerin faces three charges stemming from the fatal crash of the last B-52 at Fairchild Air Force Base.

The bomber crashed after practicing unsafe maneuvers for an upcoming air show, killing the four-man crew.

In hearings last week in Tucson, Ariz., defense attorneys told Van Orsdol the charges should be dismissed because the general who ordered the court-martial was pressured by his superiors.

Last December, Lt. Gen. Thomas Griffith, commander of the 12th Air Force, ordered Pellerin to stand trial even though an officer who conducted a preliminary hearing in the case recommended against a courtmartial.

The decision to hold a courtmartial is within Griffith’s authority.

But Pellerin’s attorneys contend the three-star general received pressure from his superiors to overrule the hearing officer, said Capt. Mike Richmond, a spokesman for the 12th Air Force.

Only a handful of officials - primarily Gen. John Loh, Air Combat commander, and Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall - would have the ability to exert such pressure.

Defense attorneys also asked that Griffith’s order for a court-martial be thrown out because the general had read a confidential report on the accident before making his decision, Richmond said Monday.

As 12th Air Force commander, Griffith had the responsibility to read the entire report of the Safety Board that investigated the accident involving one of his planes. But defense attorneys say that unfairly influenced his decision on the courtmartial.

Prosecutors will have to prove the report did not influence Griffith. To do that, they may have to put the general on the stand, Richmond said.

Attorneys for both sides could wind up questioning the general without knowing what incriminating evidence the report contains.

Last week, Pellerin’s attorneys were given a few select portions of the safety report that tend to help his defense. But Van Orsdol ruled they could not have the incriminating evidence.

Prosecutors have not seen any information in the safety report, although anything the defense uses during the trial must be approved by the judge and given to prosecutors.

If Van Orsdol rules the report unfairly influenced Griffith, the judge could put the court-martial on hold.

One of Griffith’s superiors - either Loh or Widnall - would have to review the case and decide whether to prosecute Pellerin.

But both have read at least parts of the same confidential report, and similar objections about the influence of the safety report could be raised again, Richmond said.

In other action, Van Orsdol refused to drop two counts against Pellerin. Both counts say Pellerin should have grounded the pilot of the plane, Lt. Col. Arthur “Bud” Holland.

Pellerin was Holland’s superior at the time and had received complaints that Holland regularly broke safety rules.

The judge did order prosecutors to provide more details on the basis for those charges by the end of this week.

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