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Jury's Out In Freedom Tower BASE Jump Case

06/24/2015 06:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016
AFP via Getty Images

Update: The jury in the trial of the three men who BASE jumped off the new World Trade Center tower in lower Manhattan returned a verdict yesterday: not guilty on the top count of burglary, guilty on the lesser counts of reckless endangerment and violating the city's BASE jumping prohibition.

Continue reading update here.

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Since the two-week trial of the World Trade Center BASE jumpers concluded early Wednesday afternoon, the jury has been deliberating. Defendants James Brady, 33, Andrew Rossig, 34, and Marko Markovich, 28, can only wait while the jury debates the four charges against them, including one felony burglary count and three misdemeanor counts, two for reckless endangerment and one for violating the actual BASE jumping statute.

Closing arguments last Wednesday saw both the defense and the prosecution attempting to hammer home their own narratives surrounding the jumps, which took place in September 2013 and were recorded by the jumpers on helmet-mounted GoPro cameras. To the defense, the charges were overzealous; to the prosecutor, they were warranted.

The defense team hit on the same points it had since the arraignment: yes, these are the guys who BASE jumped off the tower, but they are highly skilled experts who endangered nobody but themselves and are being overcharged because they embarrassed the Port Authority and the NYPD by exposing security lapses at the site. Timothy Parlatore, the lead defense attorney, representing Andrew Rossig, went first.

"In this case, most of the facts are not in dispute: these are the men who climbed to the top of the Freedom Tower and jumped off," Parlatore said. "On your shoulders today rests the all important decision of whether to permanently label these defendants as criminals."

Much of his argument centered on the most serious charge, for felony third degree burglary. The core of the defense argument hinges on the wording of the burglary statute, which applies to breaking into a building with intent to commit a crime "therein." They argued that because the crime was committed outside--they jumped from the communication rings atop the tower's roof--the burglary charge does not apply but that, because "they did what they did in a manner that embarrassed city and state government officials," they are being made an example of.

"What I told you on the very first day of this trial remains the same," Parlatore said. "Was the jump committed safely? And where did they jump from? Was it inside, or outside?"

The trial itself had been contentious, and featured a couple surprises. Defendant Markovich took the stand in his own defense, but the biggest surprise was the testimony of Kyle Hartwell, who was initially charged with the three jumpers for serving as an accomplice, driver, and lookout. Shortly before the trial started, he took a plea deal to avoid a felony conviction and jail time. It was the same sort of deal that the defense had sought for the jumpers, admitting the crime but avoiding the life-altering implications of a felony conviction.

(Hartwell's testimony probably won't change much in the jury's mind, but it did clarify a couple points I'd gotten wrong in my earlier article. The jumpers had told me that they had carried their gear in with them on the night of the jump, and that Markovich's pilot chute had gotten caught on something and damaged while climbing the stairs. In fact, Brady had stashed their parachutes and other gear on site the day before, and the pilot chute had been gnawed to shreds by rats by the time the three men retrieved it the next day.)

Attorney Joseph Corozzo, representing Marko Markovich, made clear that he felt Hartwell had been coerced into cooperation. "He had to cooperate," Corozzo said in his closing. "That's what he had to do to be treated fairly. Nobody's mad at Kyle Hartwell."

Carozzo, like the others, spent a good deal of time arguing against the idea that there was any substantial risk in this jump to anyone but the jumpers themselves. They are experts, he said, professionals whose "only objective in this jump was to jump off successfully and land successful. There were no tricks in this jump," he said, before trying to underscore how little danger there was to anyone on the ground. "This is a great New York story, that three people jump off the Freedom Tower and there's only one 911 call."

Assistant District Attorney Joseph Giovanetti disagreed, of course, sticking close to what his office has argued all along: that these three men are selfish thrill-seekers who knowingly disregarded public safety and flouted the law for their own kicks. In their view, the communication rings on the roof are part of the building, and therefore the burglary charge is appropriate.

"You heard them crowing and bragging about what they did [on the podcast], giving a blow by blow account of their crimes," argued Giovanetti. These men, he said, are criminals. "Don't let the defense confuse you about this," he continued. "What the defense is trying to do is confuse you by mixing up the words indoors and inside." Giovanetti went through a series of analogies ranging from the jury box to a boxing ring to Central Park to Derek Jeter standing in the batter's box to try to show that to be "inside" doesn't necessarily require a roof overhead.

Giovanetti did not mince words, and he accused the defense of twisting the law, coaching witnesses, and mispresenting the potential jail time faced by their clients. One of the most entertaining moments came when he quoted back from an occasionally profane podcast of the defendants describing their jump, which surely involved more F-bombs than he was comfortable with

"Don't let the defendants pull the wool over your eyes or talk you into not being able to see the forest for the trees," he concluded. "The defendants put their enjoyment above the law."

It's now in the hands of the jury. "This is the hardest part," Parlatore told me after the jury was sent off on Wednesday. "They could come back in five minutes, they could come back in a week. All we can do is wait."

(A version of this post first appeared on timsohn.com.)