(CN) - Vacating a jury's conviction of an American Airlines flight attendant found to have made a false bomb threat, the 1st Circuit said prosecutors did not show malice.
The case stems from an incident that occurred during the boarding of an American Airlines scheduled to fly from Boston to Miami on Sept. 30, 2009.
According to court documents, flight attendant Nancy Gray was performing pre-flight safety checks as John Marino, a cabin service crewmember, cleaned the aircraft.
As part of his pre-flight routine, Marino opened a small door to the storage area behind the paper towel dispenser in the mid-cabin lavatory, and saw nothing unusual there, the documents say.
Later, however, Marino saw Gray enter and exit the lavatory, hurry over to the lead flight attendant, and tell him that she had found a note inside the storage compartment.
The lead flight attendant then saw, written inside the compartment door, the words "Bomb on Board! BOS-MIA," the documents say.
The flight attendants then rushed to the cockpit to notify the captain, who saw the message, stopped boarding, and notified the authorities.
Once the aircraft was evacuated and towed to a remote area of Logan Airport, it was searched for several hours, but no bomb was found.
Months later, when Gray was suspended, she asked FBI Special Agent Joseph DeVuono for an interview to "clear her name."
Gray ultimately met with DeVuono for an hour and a half interview on Dec. 23, during which she confessed, "with deep regret and remorse," for writing the bomb threat, the documents say.
"I did not have anything to do with any other threats made, ever to American Airlines," Gray wrote, speaking of the decade she had worked for the airline.
She later added that she had "been under extreme, stressful personal things in my life. After the ground worker called me a 'fucking bitch' I snapped for a moment. I care deeply about AA, crew & the passengers. I have loved my job and still do. I will never do it again."
Though DeVuono said Gray did not appear disoriented when she left his office that afternoon, her then husband, Dr. Scot Brewer, said when she came home "she was walking funny, talking in slurred speech," and asking to see her mother, who had died ten years earlier.
A grand jury in Massachusetts indicted Gray on Aug. 5, 2010 on charges of giving false information regarding a bomb threat on an airplane. She pleaded not guilty.
During the four-day trial, flight attendant Stacy Hyde testified that before the flight, Gray had said she was going to "get back at" the airline for mishandling her prior medical issue.
After some questioning of the definition of "maliciously," the jury returned a guilty verdict, and Gray was sentenced to 27 months in prison, with three years of supervised release.
Gray appealed, and the 1st Circuit vacated the jury verdict last week.
"The government had the burden of proving that Gray wrote the bomb threat willfully and maliciously," U.S. Circuit Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson wrote for the majority on the three-judge panel. "The proof of motive was less than compelling, and Gray's motivation was debatable. The court's incorrect definition of malice - 'evil purpose or improper motive' - impermissibly diluted the standard and introduced 'too great a likelihood that the instructional error may have influenced the verdict.' Our review of the record convinces us that the error was not harmless."
Thompson added: "Because we find that the district court's definition just won't fly, we vacate Gray's conviction and remand this case for a new trial."
But U.S. Circuit Judge Jeffrey Howard dissented, writing that "It sets the bar far too high to require the government to show that a defendant harbored an 'evil intent' - against her airline employer or anyone else - in order to prosecute that individual for making a false bomb threat that necessitated the grounding and evacuation of an aircraft and the response of emergency personnel."
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