updated 5/25/2007 10:12:44 PM ET 2007-05-26T02:12:44

A prosecutor on Friday sought formal charges against two U.S. pilots and four Brazilian air traffic controllers involved in the South American country’s worst-ever air disaster, which left 154 people dead.

Prosecutor Thiago Lemos de Andrade asked a federal judge to issue indictments against U.S. pilots Joseph Lepore and Jan Paul Paladino for involuntary manslaughter and exposing an aircraft to danger, crimes punishable by one to three years in prison, press officer Leonita Violato said.

Lepore, 42, and Paladino, 34, were flying an Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet on Sept. 29, 2006 when it collided with a Boeing 737 operated by Gol Linhas Aereas Intelligentes SA, sending the larger plane crashing into the rain forest and killing everyone onboard.

The Legacy, owned by Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based ExcelAire, and on its inaugural voyage to the United States, landed safely.

Pair were held for 2 months
Lepore and Paladino were detained in Brazil for two months and allowed to leave only after promising to return for any court action. But a local lawyer for the pilots said it was unclear whether they would have to go back.

“We have to wait for the judge’s ruling, but the pilots have the right to defend themselves in the United States,” Theo Dias said. Asked whether they would return if convicted, he said, “That is a hypothesis I prefer not to entertain.”

Violato said the judge’s decision about whether to indict the pilots could come at any time. In Brazil, there are no grand juries and judges decide whether to proceed with prosecutions.

Brazilian authorities have accused the pilots of playing a role in the crash, saying they exercised a “lack of caution.”

Lawyer calls charges a ‘tragedy’
Joel R. Weiss, an American lawyer representing the pilots, said they are innocent.

“The accident of Sept. 29 was a terrible tragedy, and today the prosecutor’s charges against the pilots compounds that tragedy,” Weiss said in a telephone interview from New York.

Brazilian authorities have conceded in recent weeks that the air traffic controllers on duty at the time of the crash share some blame. But they maintain that the pilots should have noticed that the Legacy’s transponder was not transmitting a signal with its location for 55 minutes before the collision.

Weiss said investigations have not shown there was any indication in the cockpit to let the pilots know the transponder was off and air traffic controllers should have known that the planes were on a collision path.

“The prosecutor has prematurely reached a conclusion before the true experts, the civil aeronautics investigators, have fully investigated this matter,” Weiss said.

Air traffic controllers also probed
Andrade also sought to bring charges against the air traffic controllers, who are air force personnel, claiming that civilian prosecutors have jurisdiction over military officials in cases where a crime is committed against civilians.

Previously police had said they could only be charged in military courts.

Andrade assigned a greater degree of blame to one of the four controllers, Joao Marcelo Fernandes dos Santos, seeking to charge him with willingly exposing an aircraft to danger, a crime similar to intentional manslaughter.

Earlier this week, the president of Brazil’s air traffic controllers union told a congressional commission that the country’s controllers are poorly trained in English — the universal language for air traffic communications — and that blind spots exist in Brazil’s radar coverage.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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