The JetBlue Airways Corp. (JBLU) pilot whose Las Vegas-bound flight was diverted to Texas after he began ranting about terrorists and banging on doors must decide early whether to raise a mental-competence defense, according to defense lawyers watching the case.
Clayton Frederick Osbon, 49, who was evaluated at Northwest Texas Healthcare System after the plane landed in Amarillo on March 27, is now in the Randall County Jail, where a judge yesterday ordered him to be kept apart from inmates serving sentences. Osbon, who is charged with interfering with a flight crew, has a bail hearing scheduled for April 5.
The co-pilot locked Osbon out of the cockpit after he began reciting numbers and talking about “sins in Las Vegas,” according to court filings. Passengers subdued Osbon as he banged on the cockpit door, prayed and talked about “Jesus, Sept. 11, Iraq, Iran and terrorists,” prosecutors said.
“This is clearly a person with a psychiatric medical problem who needs to be directed to some sort of medical facility,” Frank Jackson, a Dallas criminal defense attorney, said in a phone interview. Jackson, who has presented psychological defenses for clients, isn’t involved in Osbon’s case.
If convicted, Osbon could be sentenced to as long as 20 years in prison and fined $250,000, according to U.S. Attorney Sarah R. Saldana in Dallas. The U.S. has asked that Osbon be held without bond until trial.
Allison Sands, a spokeswoman for Saldana, declined to comment beyond the record of the case. Osbon’s attorney, E. Dean Roper, also declined to comment.
The defense must raise claims of impaired mental capacity early, said Paul Coggins, a former U.S. attorney in Dallas.
“They can’t just spring that at trial,” he said in a phone interview.
Early notice gives the U.S. time to make its own evaluation, he said. If the defendant is in custody, he’s typically sent for psychiatric evaluation to the U.S. Medical Facility for Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, a process that can take three to six months, Coggins said.
After Flight 191 left John F. Kennedy International Airport, Osbon started ranting and “trying to correlate completely unrelated numbers like different radio frequencies, and he talked about sins in Las Vegas,” according to court filings.
Osbon, his legs shackled, mostly frowned and gave one-word answers at his initial court appearance yesterday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Clinton Averitte in Amarillo.
“Do you understand what they say you did?” Averitte asked after reading the formal charge.
“Yes,” said Osbon.
In an order filed after the hearing, Averitte wrote that the U.S. said “there are no conditions of release which will reasonably assure the safety of any other person and the community.”
For Osbon to be held without bail, the U.S. must show that he’s a flight risk or that there’s a danger he’ll commit another crime, according to Coggins.
“Presumably, he isn’t going to be flying planes so I would think they’d have to prove there’s a danger he might freak out in some other circumstance and do something,” said Coggins, who is the head of the white-collar criminal practice at Locke Lord LLP in Dallas.
‘That Is Madness’
Jackson, the Dallas defense lawyer, said he would raise the mental competency issue at the detention hearing if he were working the case.
“Detaining him in jail, that is madness,” Jackson said in a phone interview. “That’s for terrorists and people like that.”
In a statement April 1, Osbon’s wife, Connye, said his family doesn’t believe her husband intended to hurt anyone. She asked the media to respect the family’s privacy and said they won’t be making any further public comments, according to the statement released by New York-based JetBlue on the family’s behalf.
“While he was clearly distressed, he was not intentionally violent toward anyone,” according to the statement.
The Airbus A320 was around halfway into the journey of about 2,250 miles (3,620 kilometers) and cruising at about 34,000 feet when the incident occurred, according to data compiled by FlightAware.com, a real-time flight tracking site. On board were five crew members and 135 passengers, some of whom were headed to a conference of security industry professionals.
‘Going to Die’
“All I was thinking was that these 130 people on the plane are frightened and thinking they’re going to die,” said David Gonzalez, 50, a retired New York City corrections officer who was the first to reach Osbon. “I wasn’t thinking about 9/11. I’m fighting the pilot. It wasn’t like he was a terrorist.”
Gonzalez, director of business development for home- surveillance company Tri-Ed/Northern Video Distribution in Woodbury, New York, was headed to Las Vegas for the International Security Conference West. So was Tony Antolino, another of the foursome who helped corral Osbon.
“He started shouting about how they got us in Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan, and that they’re going to take us down,” Antolino said.
Until the pilot left the cockpit and spent about 15 minutes in the cabin, there were no clues for passengers that anything was amiss, said Antolino, chief marketing officer for security- system provider EyeLock Corp. in New York.
Late for Briefing
The captain had been late to a pre-flight crew briefing in New York, Saldana said in a statement. In the air, he talked about religion and made remarks that concerned the co-pilot, Jason Dowd, including saying “we need to take a leap of faith” and that Flight 191 and its passengers were “not going to Vegas,” according to the statement.
Osbon exited the cockpit, banged on a lavatory door, and began making comments about “Jesus, Sept. 11, Iraq, Iran and terrorists,” according to the U.S. attorney’s statement.
When Osbon was in the restroom, an off-duty pilot was shuffled into the flight deck and the cockpit door secured again by changing the security code, said Gonzalez, whose seat was close to the action.
“When he started saying the Lord’s Prayer, we tackled him to the ground and restrained him,” Antolino said.
Osbon was subdued and tied up with passengers’ belts.
“The law cares about whether someone is both competent to stand trial and if there was an effect of mental illness at the time of the crime,” Jeffrey Bellin, a professor at Southern Methodist University’s law school in Dallas and a former federal prosecutor, said in a phone interview. “We want people who commit crimes to have to answer for their crimes. If you’re not competent to stand trial, we can’t have a trial.”
Somebody who is initially judged unfit to be tried can be institutionalized until they are found fit, according to Jennifer Laurin, a University of Texas law professor who teaches criminal procedure in Austin.
“They’re committed for treatment to make them competent to stand trial,” Laurin, who was an associate with Neufeld, Scheck & Brustin LLP, a New York-based civil rights law firm that specializes in wrongful-conviction cases, said in a phone interview. “Trial is delayed, not taken off the table.”
The case is U.S. v. Osbon, 2:12-MJ-22, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Texas (Amarillo).
To contact the reporters on this story: Tom Korosec in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Amarillo at email@example.com.