LOS ANGELES -- A Los Angeles federal judge threw out an indictment Friday charging a dive boat captain with manslaughter in the deaths of 34 people in a 2019 fire aboard a vessel anchored off the Southern California coast.
The ruling came on the third anniversary of one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent U.S. history as the Conception went down in flames Sept. 2, 2019, near an island off the coast of Santa Barbara. All 33 passengers and a crew member who were trapped in a bunk room below deck died.
Captain Jerry Boylan, 68, failed to follow safety rules, federal prosecutors said. He was accused of "misconduct, negligence and inattention" by failing to train his crew, conduct fire drills and have a roving night watchman on the boat when the fire ignited.
But the indictment failed to specify that Boylan acted with gross negligence, which U.S. District Judge George Wu said was a required element to prove the crime of seaman's manslaughter and must be listed in the indictment.
Prosecutors will seek approval from the Department of Justice to appeal the ruling, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. They can also seek a new indictment alleging gross negligence.
Boylan and four other crew members, who had all been sleeping on an upper deck, escaped from the burning boat after the captain made a panicked mayday call.
Surviving crew members said the blaze prevented them from trying to reach those trapped in the bunk room. Flames blocked a stairwell and a small hatch that were the only exits from below deck, officials said. All 34 perished from smoke inhalation.
The ruling is the second recent blow to prosecutors in the case.
Boylan originally was indicted on 34 counts of seaman's manslaughter with each carrying a possible prison term of 10 years if he was convicted. Defense lawyers sought to dismiss those charges because they argued the deaths were all the result of a single incident and were not separate crimes.
Before that issue could be argued in court, prosecutors got a superseding indictment in July charging Boylan only with one count of seaman's manslaughter that alleged his negligence caused all 34 deaths. If convicted, he would have faced a maximum of 10 years in prison.
The defense also argued that the single-count indictment should be thrown out because it did not allege Boylan acted with gross negligence, which they said was a required element of the crime.
Federal prosecutors countered that under the pre-Civil War statute, designed to hold steamboat captains and crew responsible for maritime disasters, they only needed to show Boylan acted with simple negligence, a unique standard for a felony.
Prosecutors cited the language of the statute that says captains and other boat employees can face up to 10 years in prison for "misconduct, negligence, or inattention to his duties on such vessel the life of any person is destroyed."
Wu said the case law on seaman's manslaughter was inconsistent in appellate courts. Only a New Orleans appeals court had upheld the requirement that only simple negligence needed to be proven to win a conviction.
Robert Weisberg, a criminal law professor at Stanford University, blamed Congress in part for writing the law in an "ad hoc and inconsistent" manner.
The judge's ruling was sensible for relying on other appellate opinions that found gross negligence was a required element for the similar crime of involuntary manslaughter cases, Weisberg said. California and many other state courts also require proof of gross negligence for involuntary manslaughter.
The difference between the two types of negligence is often viewed as whether someone should be slapped with civil damages or criminally punished for their behavior.
Simple negligence would be if someone caused harm without ever considering the risks they took. It would be gross negligence if they considered the possible consequences but acted anyway. Gross negligence often incorporates an element of recklessness.
"Defendant has presented persuasive reasons for why the statute should be read to require gross negligence as an element necessary for conviction (and indictment), and the government's reasons to the contrary do not convince the court otherwise," Wu wrote.
As a homicide case with a possible 10-year sentence, Wu noted that the Supreme Court has been reluctant to allow prosecutors to show negligence instead of the more difficult standard of showing a defendant acted with criminal intent.
Federal safety investigators blamed the owners of the vessel, Truth Aquatics Inc., for a lack of oversight, though they have not been charged with a crime.
Truth Aquatics sued in federal court under a provision in maritime law to avoid payouts to the families of the victims. Family members of the dead have filed claims against boat owners Glen and Dana Fritzler and the company.