Oil spill ship pilot must face criminal charges


/*John Cota*/, 60, of Petaluma, was piloting the container ship /*Cosco Busan*/ on Nov. 7 when the vessel struck a protective fender at the base of the Bay Bridge, spilling nearly 54,000 gallons of toxic fuel into the bay.

Cota faces two felony counts of making false statements, for allegedly giving incomplete and untrue information about his medical conditions and medications on annual physical examination forms in 2006 and 2007, and two misdemeanor counts for negligently polluting the bay in violation of the U.S. Clean Water Act and for killing migratory birds contaminated by the spill.

In June, Cota's attorneys filed a motion to dismiss three of the four charges: both felony false statements charges and the negligence charge for polluting the bay.

The attorneys argued the medical forms were unclear and ambiguous, and that since the forms were for Cota's state pilot's license, the alleged crime was not under federal jurisdiction.

They also argued the pollution charge should be dismissed because Cota is not accused of having criminal intent.

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston denied the motion today, but granted a second defense motion to split the felony and misdemeanor charges into two separate trials.

Defense attorneys had contended the two sets of charges were unrelated and that extensive media coverage of the case might prejudice jurors if Cota were tried on all the charges at the same time.

The first trial, on the misdemeanor charges, had been set to begin Oct. 20, but was tentatively pushed forward today to Oct. 6, at the request of Cota's attorneys, who said they wanted to ensure the availability of witnesses in the case.

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