The Greek judicial system has just provided a reminder of how little the world has learned about the application of criminal law to airline accidents. A Greek court has just sentenced all four defendants in the Helios Airways case to 123 years each in jail - reduced to 10 years because that is the statutory maximum sentence for the offence.
Indeed, recent evidence from Brazil, France and Italy suggests that governments and judiciaries in most of the world's states are in fact retreating from enlightenment on this much-debated topic, causing upset at the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
Accidents, by definition, are usually accidental. A criminal conviction requires evidence of intent, or at least of a conscious decision to take a line of action in full knowledge of an unreasonable risk.
Significantly, three of those four Helios defendants had already been tried on the same charge in Helios's state of registration Cyprus, and the verdict was "not guilty" in all three cases. Greece took up the case because the accident happened on its soil.
The law seems to have very little to do with cases like this. Put simply, the evidence is the fatal crash itself, and the only legal logic applied to its examination is that someone must be held criminally responsible for it. The only question remaining is who. The Greek court in the Helios case did not seek to establish independent proof of the facts; it just took the technical accident report and used it as legal evidence - which it is not. Information assembled by accident investigators is not gathered using the same methods or criteria required of the police or the courts, and Greece is a signatory to the Chicago Convention, which ratifies that fact.
The harm from verdicts like this, if they become the norm, is that witnesses called to assist at a technical accident investigation, knowing they could be charged with a criminal offence, might seek to be legally represented and to exercise their right to silence. This would cripple accident investigation.
When the chief accident investigator in the Helios case was being examined by the prosecution, he testified that a maintenance action carried out before the accident flight by the only engineer among the defendants was neither wrong in itself, nor causal. That engineer, by giving evidence, was attempting to assist the investigation, but the result of his co-operation was that the court found him guilty. It is to be hoped that the appeal reverses the verdicts.
(This first appeared as the main leading article in Flight International 1 May)