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A Boeing 737 Max airplane is seen on July 18, 2018. The Justice Department violated the rights of passengers killed on Boeing 737 Max planes when the federal government reached a deferred prosecution deal with the company in 2021, a federal judge ruled.

A Boeing 737 Max airplane is seen on July 18, 2018. The Justice Department violated the rights of passengers killed on Boeing 737 Max planes when the federal government reached a deferred prosecution deal with the company in 2021, a federal judge ruled. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Justice Department violated the rights of passengers killed on Boeing 737 Max planes when the federal government reached a deferred prosecution deal with the company in 2021, a federal judge ruled Friday.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, rejecting arguments by the Justice Department and Boeing, found that the 346 people killed in crashes in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019 are crime victims under federal law. O’Connor hasn’t ruled on what the government must do to remedy its violation of their rights.

The ruling marks a broad repudiation of the approach taken by Justice Department officials in the case.

Family members and lawyers of some of those killed have called on the judge to throw out the Justice Department’s deferred prosecution agreement with Boeing. As part of that agreement, Boeing admitted to conspiring to defraud federal regulators, but the company would be immunized from being prosecuted for that conspiracy if it meets the terms of the deal.

In a sharply worded opinion, O’Connor said the evidence was clear that Boeing’s admitted conspiracy led to the deaths of hundreds of people.

“The Court finds that the tragic loss of life that resulted from the two airplane crashes was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of Boeing’s conspiracy to defraud the United States,” O’Connor wrote.

Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor and former federal judge who is representing the victims’ families, said the Justice Department had engaged in a “major, deliberate and orchestrated violation of a law that requires that crime victims be involved in crafting these kinds of arrangements.” He added: “The government and Boeing both had multiple lawyers working on this secret deal, and now the judge has made clear that secrecy was a gross violation of federal law.”

The Justice Department declined to comment. Boeing did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some family members said late Friday they are seeking prosecution for Boeing and its executives.

“Families like mine are the true victims of Boeing’s criminal misconduct, and our views should have been considered before the government gave them a sweetheart deal,” Naoise Connolly Ryan, whose husband Mick was killed in the Ethiopia crash, said in a statement.

Michael Stumo, whose daughter Samya was killed in the crash outside Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, said in a statement that “Boeing captured the FAA to get the deadly MAX 8 certified. They captured the Department of Justice under Trump and Biden to deny crash families’ rights to participate in the criminal investigation and prosecution. They thought they could capture a federal judge in Fort Worth, Texas.”

Stumo said Attorney General Merrick Garland “should order a new investigative team to re-do the entire criminal inquiry against Boeing.”

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