A jury in Texas on Wednesday acquitted a former Boeing technical pilot, Mark A. Forkner, of defrauding two of the company’s customers, serving the federal government a defeat in its only criminal case against an individual connected to the troubled Boeing 737 Max jet.
Mr. Forkner, who was also accused of deceiving the Federal Aviation Administration, was facing four counts of wire fraud, each carrying a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. A jury found him not guilty shortly after both sides rested their cases on Wednesday in Fort Worth.
“We had a great team and great client – and thank heavens for our independent, smart, fair judge and jury,” Mr. Forkner’s lawyer, David Gerger, said in a statement. “They made all the difference.”
Boeing earlier settled a criminal case brought by the federal government.
Lawyers for the Justice Department argued that Mr. Forkner had lied to the FAA about flight control software used on the Max that was implicated in two crashes, which killed 346 people. Federal prosecutors contended that Mr. Forkner had downplayed the significance of the software to regulators to discourage stricter pilot training requirements that could have cost Boeing tens of millions of dollars.
The software, known as MCAS (for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), was designed to push down the plane’s nose in certain situations. The first crash occurred in late 2018 when Lion Air Flight 610 plummeted into the sea minutes after taking off from Jakarta, Indonesia, killing all 189 people aboard. Months later, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed near Addis Ababa, killing all 157 on board.
The crashes devastated the families of those killed, led to a global ban on the Max and resulted in billions of dollars of losses and fines for Boeing. The accidents dealt a big blow to the company’s reputation and invited lawsuits and government investigations. The FAA approved the Max for flight again in late 2020, after requiring Boeing to make changes to the plane, and most of the rest of the world has followed suit.
As the chief technical pilot on the Max, Mr. Forkner discovered in 2016 that MCAS could be activated in broader conditions than initially believed, the Justice Department lawyers argued. He failed to alert federal officials of that fact and subsequently urged the FAA not to mention MCAS in its pilot training guidance for the Max, prosecutors said.
Mr. Gerger had previously described the trial as “a search for a scapegoat.”
Boeing reached its settlement with the Justice Department in January 2021, agreeing to pay billions of dollars, mostly in financial compensation to airlines. The families of more than a dozen crash victims recently criticized that deal and said federal officials had left them in the dark before it was announced. They are seeking to revoke protection afforded to Boeing from further criminal prosecution on the matter.
While the Max has been back in service for more than a year, Boeing has struggled to move past other troubles. The company has paused deliveries and slowed production of its 787 Dreamliner, for example, as it works with the FAA to address quality concerns.
Last year, a high-profile engine failure aboard a Boeing 777 over Colorado raised concerns about that plane before attention shifted to Pratt & Whitney, which made the engine. On Monday, a Boeing 737-800 NG, which preceded the Max and lacks the MCAS software, plunged from the sky, killing 130 people on board.