The Los Angeles federal court trial over responsibility for the 1986 midair collision over Cerritos was threatened Wednesday when U.S. government lawyers asked for a mistrial, contending that they had been ambushed by "lurid, tantalizing evidence" that would prejudice the jury.
The evidence--that the pilot of the private plane that collided with the Aeromexico jetliner may have suffered a heart attack moments before the accident--was never mentioned in pretrial discussions and should be excluded from the complex court case, said Steven J. Riegel, a Justice Department lawyer representing the government.
"I fear we have an irrevocably tainted jury," Riegel told U.S. District Judge David V. Kenyon after the attorney for the pilot's survivors made the comments during his opening statement Wednesday. "Every time I mention the pilot of the Piper Archer, they'll imagine a helpless, disabled man being carried through the skies. . . . The bell can't be unrung. This is a classic case of ambush."
The judge, who dismissed the jury for the day while he heard arguments on the mistrial issue, said he will rule this morning.
The assertion, by attorney Franklin J. Brummett, that William K. Kramer, 51, was somehow disabled just before the Aug. 31, 1986, collision in which he, his wife, a daughter, and 79 others in the air and on the ground died is not new.
After the accident, several news media organizations, including The Times, published articles that indicated that Kramer might have suffered a heart attack moments before his plane collided with the Aeromexico DC-9. The articles pointed out, however, that such a determination could not be positively made.
In its final report on the accident last year, the National Transportation Safety Board referred to an autopsy of Kramer's heart that found there were major obstructions of coronary blood vessels and indications of severe arteriosclerosis, but that it was unlikely that Kramer suffered a coronary.
"If the pilot had suffered a major medical problem, the safety board believes that one, or both, of the remaining occupants (Kramer's wife, Kathleen, and daughter, Caroline) would have unfastened their seat belts and possibly the pilot's seat belt while attempting to assist him," the report said. "The evidence points strongly to the fact that there was no disturbance in the cockpit and that the flight was proceeding normally. . . . "
The NTSB report, however, has no legal standing in the Los Angeles case, and government attorneys have objected to its introduction into evidence.
The federal government and Aeromexico have argued that Kramer was largely responsible by straying into a traffic control area (TCA) that is restricted only to inbound traffic to Los Angeles International Airport.
In his opening statement, Brummett, who represents the four surviving Kramer children, said there were three possible explanations as to why Kramer was in the traffic control area.
The pilot could have entered the restricted airspace intentionally, or inadvertently, the lawyer said. The third possibility, that Kramer was somehow disabled during the flight, seemed the most likely, he added.