New trial ordered for Medford man convicted of beaming laser at State Police helicopter
A federal appeals court said today that Gerard Sasso of Medford must get a new trial to determine whether he was too stupid to realize that pointing a powerful laser at a helicopter might be dangerous or if he knew and did so anyway.
Sasso was sentenced to three years in federal prison in 2010 for pointing a green laser at a State Police helicopter helping to escort an LNG tanker through Boston Harbor in 2007. He was the second person in the US convicted under a federal law aimed at protecting aircraft pilots from losers with lasers.
The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston said there was no question that Sasso did just that. Sasso, caught with a whole drawer full of lasers, kept pointing a green laser at the helicopter even as its pilot began flying toward him to try to find the source of the potentially blinding light. the court said.
The problem, the court continued, was in the instructions given the jury. The judge incorrectly blurred the legal lines between "recklessness," in this case, simply pointing a laser at the helicopter, and "willfulness," or whether Sasso did so intentionally knowing he could blind the pilot.
Because the law used to convict him requires evidence of willfulness, it's important to ensure the jury was ruling specifically on whether Sasso had the "scienter," or knowledge that what he was doing was dangerous, the court said. And since Sasso's defense was that he didn't realize that pointing a laser at a helicopter could blind the pilot, that means Sasso should get a new trial, the court ruled.
[T]he instruction did not adequately distinguish between negligently (but innocently) pointing a laser at objects in the sky without any intent to interfere with the operation of an aircraft and "willfully . . . interfer[ing]," which is the level of scienter demanded by the plain text of the statute.
Sasso will not, however, get a new trial on lying to local police by initially denying he had any lasers at all in his home. But the appeals court said that because his prison time for that charge was not broken out from the time for pointing the laser, a lower-court judge will have to consider just how much time he should get for lying.