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A win for crime victims’ rights movement

U law professor Paul Cassell wins an evidentiary hearing for families of Boeing 737 MAX crash victims.

On July 27, 2022, Judge Reed O’Connor of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas agreed with arguments made by 15 families of victims of the two Boeing 737 MAX crashes that they should be given an evidentiary hearing to prove the planes crashed because of Boeing’s crime of deceiving the FAA. The hearing will give the victims an opportunity to potentially challenge—and invalidate—a controversial deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Boeing Co. The families are represented by Paul Cassell, a professor of law at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law and a well-known expert on crime victims’ rights.

The case involves whether DOJ prosecutors violated the rights of crash victims by failing to confer with their families before agreeing to the DPA with Boeing. The agreement, which was announced on Jan. 7, 2021, was related to the company’s concealment of safety problems from the Federal Aviation Administration, resulting in two crashes of their 737 MAX aircraft that killed 346 passengers and crew members.

In December 2021, the crash victims’ families filed a motion arguing that DOJ prosecutors violated their rights under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by engaging in a secret process that granted Boeing a favorable DPA, effectively blocking its prosecution for any crimes that caused the crashes.

In May 2021, Cassell argued the motion before O’Connor. On July 27, 2022, O’Connor ruled that he needed to hold a hearing to determine whether the company’s crime of concealing safety information from the FAA led to the two crashes. If it did, then the families were “victims” of that crime and the DOJ had to confer with them before reaching a deal with Boeing.

In the July 27 ruling, O’Connor explained that if the families “can show that Boeing’s conspiracy to defraud the FAA caused the plane crashes, then they can potentially show that they represent ‘person[s] directly and proximately harmed as a result of the commission of a federal offense’”—that is, they could potentially show that they were “victims” of a federal crime.

The July 27 ruling has important ramifications for the crime victims’ rights movement in the United States. Cassell explained that “this ruling recognizes that those who are potentially harmed by a federal crime are guaranteed their day in court to prove that they are entitled to victims’ rights.”

A copy of the ruling can be found here. The ruling is part of pending litigation between the United States and Boeing in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas (Case No. 4:21-CR-005-o-1).