Brazilian appeals court upholds pilots' convictions

At the ExcelAire terminal at Islip MacArthur Airport,

At the ExcelAire terminal at Islip MacArthur Airport, pilots Joseph Lepore (wearing white shirt) and Jan Paladino, (wearing dark suit) arrived from Brazil where they were held for 10 weeks after an air crash. Lepore holds his daughter Nicole, 3. (Credit: Daniel Goodrich)

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An appeals court in Brazil has upheld the convictions of two Long Island pilots for their roles in a 2006 collision over the Amazon jungle that killed more than 150 people, but the judges reduced the sentence handed down by a lower court.

In affirming the conviction on one count and acquittal on five others, the judges on Monday cut the sentence from 4 years and 4 months to 3 years and 1 month. They also eliminated the requirement of community service and suspension of the pilots' licenses in Brazil.

The appeals court upheld the lower court ruling from last year that Joseph Lepore of Bay Shore and Jan Paladino of Westhampton Beach were negligent for not verifying that anti-collision equipment and a transponder that would have alerted controllers to their location were functioning in the Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet they were flying for ExcelAire Service Inc. of Ronkonkoma.

Both have insisted that the equipment appeared to be working properly.

Lepore and Paladino were transporting the new Brazilian-built Embraer to Long Island when the aircraft collided with a Gol airlines Boeing 737 on Sept. 29, 2006. Although they were able to safely land their damaged plane, all 154 people aboard the commercial airliner died when it crashed into the jungle.

Instead of the 52 months of community service in the original sentence, the appellate judges sentenced Lepore and Paladino to 37 months served in "open regime." In different areas of Brazil, that roughly equates to either house arrest with the ability to leave for work or probation, according to the pilots' attorneys.

The pilots have resumed their flying careers in the United States and are unlikely to go back to Brazil voluntarily, so the practical impact of the ongoing legal action was unclear.

"We are pleased that the court reduced the sentence, removed the obligation of community service and removed the suspension of the pilots' licenses," said Joel Weiss, the pilots' Uniondale attorney. "Before deciding whether we will appeal, we will need to seek clarification from the court in Brazil about the meaning of 'open regime' as it applies to citizens of the United States."

The prosecution, which appealed the original sentence with a victims' family group to seek a more stringent sentence, is expected to do so again.

Lepore and Paladino were charged with negligence and endangering air traffic safety for flying at the wrong altitude and failing to turn on the anti-collision system. They have denied all of the allegations, but last year a judge convicted them of impeding the safe navigation of an airplane.Neither pilot has returned to Brazil since being allowed to leave about two months after the crash.

In 2008, a Brazilian air force report concluded that the American pilots might have contributed to the crash by inadvertently turning off the plane's transponder and collision-avoidance system. However, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board blamed the collision mostly on shortcomings in Brazil's military-run air-traffic control system.

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