By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department has issued updated guidelines for victim and witness assistance after the government came under harsh criticism from the families of those killed in two Boeing (NYSE:) 737 MAX crashes.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Texas ruled on Friday that people killed in two Boeing 737 MAX crashes are legally considered “crime victims.” He still must decide on what remedy should be imposed after making the determination.
The revised guidelines detail “when and how department employees work with victims and witnesses of crime to ensure that their voices are heard and that they are protected during criminal justice proceedings,” the Justice Department said.
In December, some victims’ relatives argued the department violated their rights when it struck the January 2021 agreement with Boeing over the two crashes in a five-month period that killed 346 people.
The families argued the U.S. government “lied and violated their rights through a secret process,” and asked a judge to rescind Boeing’s immunity from criminal prosecution, which was part of the $2.5 billion agreement, and arraigning Boeing on the felony charges.
The revised guidelines significantly expand support for people significantly harmed by crime but may not meet the statutory definition of “victim.” They also require earlier notification and consultation and say “prosecutors should, as appropriate, notify victims of plea agreements, deferred prosecution agreements, and non-prosecution agreements before a charging document is filed.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland said “the revised guidelines will ensure that we continue to fulfill our obligations to victims and witnesses.”
Garland met virtually in January with families of some Boeing crash victims but the department stood by the 2021 plea agreement. In February, the department apologized “for not meeting and conferring with these crash victims’ beneficiaries before entering into” the deferred prosecution agreement.
O’Connor ruled on Friday that “in sum, but for Boeing’s criminal conspiracy to defraud the (Federal Aviation Administration), 346 people would not have lost their lives in the crashes.”
The Justice Department and Boeing declined comment on the ruling.
Paul Cassell, a lawyer for the families, said the department “clearly violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by secretly negotiating an agreement that granted Boeing immunity from criminal prosecution.”
The Justice Department deal capped a 21-month investigation into the design and development of the 737 MAX following the two crashes, in Indonesia and Ethiopia in 2018 and 2019.