updated 5/13/2005 1:56:51 PM ET 2005-05-13T17:56:51

A former NASA employee was acquitted Friday of charges he failed to properly inspect the labor of contractors working on the space shuttle Discovery.

The day after the judge threw out all but a few of the charges against him, Billy Thomas Thornton was found innocent of the remaining three counts of fraud and one count of making a false statement.

Each charge had carried a prison sentence of up to 15 years and a fine of up to $500,000.

The jury heard closing arguments Friday morning and then deliberated just two hours before reaching its verdict.

After federal prosecutors rested their case Thursday, U.S. District Judge Gregory A. Presnell threw out 162 of the 166 counts against Thornton.

He ruled they had failed to prove that Thornton didn’t oversee work by technicians from NASA contractor United Space Alliance, or that he committed fraud by putting his stamp on paperwork showing the work had been done.

The remaining charges involved whether Thornton properly inspected work done on Discovery’s right wing. Prosecutors accused Thornton of failing to check out whether a cavity in the orbiter’s wing was empty before a plate was bolted over it. A bird, lizard, tool or rivet could have fallen in the hole, prosecutor Bruce Hinshelwood said in closing arguments earlier Friday.

“Failure could lead to loss of the orbiter or life,” Hinshelwood said. “It’s a crime because it’s a government mandatory inspection point.”

Thornton’s attorney, Kepler Funk, told jurors that Thornton — who was fired by NASA in 2003 — was a tough inspector who antagonized United Space Alliance with his fussiness. If he did anything wrong, it was not following policy rather than breaking the law, Funk said.

“He wasn’t afraid to stop jobs, and that doesn’t make the contractor, USA, very happy,” Funk said. “What NASA should be doing is thanking him, not prosecuting him.”

Discovery is scheduled to be the first shuttle sent back into space following the Columbia accident of Feb. 1, 2003, which killed seven astronauts. NASA was hoping to return the shuttle to space this month, but the agency has pushed back the launch date to mid-July at the earliest.

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