A 10-officer court-martial panel on Friday found Joint Base Lewis-McChord pilot Capt. Jared Foley not guilty of dereliction of duty and reckless endangerment in the 2011 death of an Army paratrooper from the West Virginia National Guard.
Foley, 37, had faced 21/2 years in prison for approving an airdrop that led to the death of Sgt. Francis Campion, 31, of Hollidaysburg, Pa.
Foley closed his eyes and seemed to hold back tears when the colonel who led the court-martial panel read the verdict. Capt. Sarah Carlson, one of Foley's defense attorneys, could not stop from crying.
He embraced a courtroom full of supporters, most of them Air Force officers in flight suits or brown leather jackets.
All of the attorneys in the case declined to comment through their command. Foley also declined to comment.
The case caught the attention of airmen throughout the service because Foley was a well-respected C-17 pilot who testified he believed he was following Air Force regulations when he permitted what became a fatal airdrop July 10, 2011, over a Montana air field.
Foley maintained that Army leaders on the ground and in the air cleared the last jump even though a previous one had resulted in a soldier landing outside an established drop zone. That should have been a signal to Foley to end the mission, according to Air Force regulations.
But soldiers on the ground said the jumper landed off course because of his own error, and cleared Foley for more drops.
Furthermore, Foley testified Thursday that the feedback he received from computer reports and service members on five previous passes over the airfield showed the mission was going well.
Foley's defense team argued that the jump that preceded Camion's death fell into a gray area in Air Force regulations because Army safety officers told the air crew that the paratrooper had maneuvered himself off course.
"They say it's black and white. How can it be black and white if Foley's making this mistake?" defense attorney Matt McCall said Thursday, citing Foley's reputation as a careful pilot. "If it was black and white, we wouldn't be here."
The Army's drop zone safety officer from the Montana mission testified Wednesday that he told Foley "the ground was good."
The 62nd Airlift Wing at Lewis-McChord since has instituted new training to stress that all airdrop missions must end if an off drop zone landing is suspected, Foley's defense attorneys said.
Foley testified Thursday that he believed his court-martial was part of an effort by the military to better define its regulations.
"I think the government wants to make it black and white," he said.
Foley has served in the military for 17 years and deployed at least twice to the Middle East. He was well respected by his commanders, and 38 service members wrote character letters on his behalf.
Lt. Col. Eric Carney, Foley's former commander at Lewis-McChord's 7th Airlift Squadron, said after the court-martial that he had faith in the military investigation and in the care the Air Force takes to ensure safety of its crews and passengers.
He testified to support Foley on Thursday. On Friday, Carney reiterated that Foley is "an outstanding officer."