The easy way to cope with the Exxon Valdez catastrophe was to say, ``This only happened because Old Hazelwood was drunk again. Let's throw the book at him and we'll all feel better.' Thank goodness there was a jury in Alaska too smart to fall for that.Urged to pile the whole blame for the oil spill one year ago yesterday on Captain Joseph Hazelwood, the jury balked. Asked to convict him of the vague felony of criminal mischief, the jury said no. It said no as well to charges of operating a vessel while intoxicated and of reckless endangerment. It convicted Hazelwood only of misdemeanor negligence, probably as a symbolic gesture more than anything else. His sentence was community service and $50,000 in restitution.
Hazelwood may not be blameless. He may have used bad judgment when he left a tricky bit of navigation in the hands of junior officers - though other captains testified that they do the same. His bad judgment may have been responsible for incalculable environmental and economic damage. But his trial made it clear, if it wasn't before, that he had been vilified unfairly in the months following the accident.
From March 24, 1989 onward, stories were put out portraying Hazelwood as a sot who had gone on a leisurely bar hop in the hours before his supertanker weighed anchor. Extraordinary tales circulated about the purported incompetence of the subordinates Hazelwood put in charge when he left the bridge during the fateful part of the Exxon Valdez' abortive voyage.
The caricature of the boozy, incompetent captain and the ditzy mate struck a responsive chord in this era of diminishing tolerance of human frailty. The giant Exxon puts 11 million gallons of crude in the hands of an alcoholic captain, you say? But of course - that explains everything.
In the sober light of a courtroom, a rather different picture emerged. The prosecution turned out to have no substantial evidence of intoxication. Witness after witness attested to Hazelwood's sobriety and control before, during and after the accident.
The helmsman left in charge by Hazelwood lacked a special license for Prince William Sound, yes, but it turns out there is no such license.
Accountability for the Exxon Valdez disaster is a lot more complicated than putting one hapless seaman in irons. Practically speaking, it is a problem of civil, not criminal liability. Perhaps Exxon's negligence, in its magnitude, approaches criminal recklessness, but the criminal courts are ill-equipped to cope with corporations, especially multibillion-dollar multinationals.
Maybe dragging Hazelwood through a criminal trial in Anchorage was an uplifting, cathartic experience for the justifiably angry people of Alaska. But in the end it was a pointless exercise, and an unfair one. The jury saw it for what it was.