Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
FORT WORTH — In an unusual proceeding for a corporation accused of a crime, Boeing officials were arraigned Thursday in a federal courtroom in Fort Worth for the company’s actions leading to two plane crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 passengers and crew.
Boeing was charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government for allegedly skirting safety rules when introducing its 737 MAX jets. The arraignment before U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor took place two years after the company entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice which paused prosecution of the criminal case before the company ever formally entered a plea on the charges.
The agreement is being challenged by the victims’ families, who say they weren’t involved in the negotiation process. O’Connor ruled last fall that the crash victims’ families deserved to be heard in court.
Those family members filled the courtroom benches, traveling from around the world to testify about the impact of the crashes that took the lives of their partners, siblings, parents and children.
Paul Njoroge choked back tears as he spoke about the loss of his wife and three children who perished along with his mother-in-law in the Ethiopia crash. His youngest was just 9 months old.
“I’ll never get to know what my children would have become,” he told the judge.
The size and placement of the engines on the 737 MAX planes were changed from earlier models, and a new flight control feature was added to correct for the plane’s nose pitching up in certain conditions. The flight control feature was known to potentially kick in during takeoff, which apparently happened in the crashes, court documents state, but Boeing executives withheld that pertinent information from the Federal Aviation Administration when certifying the new plane in 2017, in an attempt to save tens of millions of dollars by not being required to provide additional training to pilots. In January 2021, Boeing made a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice that defers prosecution for the crime if the company complies with its terms, including federal oversight, monetary fines and payment to victims’ families.
But the families sued, arguing that the agreement was a “sweetheart deal” made behind closed doors, and that under the Crime Victims Rights Act, they should have been allowed a seat at that table. The families want the court to appoint an independent monitor to check the company’s compliance and for increased transparency in DOJ dealings with the company. Attorneys for Boeing and the Justice Department argued in court against the appointment of an independent monitor, saying that the deferred prosecution agreement is working well and the company is complying with the orders.
The families argued that Boeing knew about problems with the plane after the first crash and failed to prevent the second crash from happening. In a statement after the first crash, Boeing said the 737 MAX was “as safe as any airplane that has ever flown the skies.”
“Boeing acted callously, recklessly and, yes, criminally,” Paul Cassell, attorney for the families, told the judge. “For a few dollars more, Boeing committed the deadliest corporate crime in U.S. history.”
Crash victims’ families testified one after another, in often tearful and heartrending detail, about their loved ones’ lives and the hole left behind after their deaths. Martin Ike Riffel and his wife Susan came from Redding, California, to speak about the loss of both their sons, Melvin and Bennett, who died in the Ethiopia crash in 2019. After they spoke, Melvin’s wife Brittney, and her 3-year-old daughter Emma, took the stand. Emma was born two months after her father’s death.
“Our lives were just beginning,” Brittney Riffel told the judge. “And now Emma will never get a chance to know her father.”
On Thursday, Boeing pleaded not guilty to the fraud charge.
“We will never forget the lives lost in these accidents,” a Boeing spokesperson said in a statement. “We have made broad and deep changes across our company, and made changes to the design of the 737 MAX to ensure that accidents like these never happen again.”
O’Connor is expected to rule soon on the conditions of release, including whether to appoint an independent monitor.
Disclosure: Boeing Company has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.