A federal appeals court has vacated one of two counts that underpinned a Massachusetts man’s conviction for aiming a laser pointer at a police helicopter while it ushered a natural gas tanker through Boston Harbor.

On September 17, a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed the conviction of Gerard Sasso on one count of interfering with the operation of an aircraft with reckless disregard for human life, and it remanded the case for a new trial. The court determined that the jury instructions were flawed because they didn’t make clear that the word “willfully” applies to interfering with the operation of the helicopter, not just aiming the laser pointer at it.

The First Circuit also affirmed Sasso’s conviction for making false statements in connection with the incident, but held that Sasso must be resentenced on that count. The court found that it was unclear whether the district court intended the false statements sentence to run concurrently, so it remanded the case for further proceedings on both issues.

According to the opinion, Sasso trained a laser on the helicopter several times during the night of December 8, 2007, despite its zigzag flight path to avoid the beam. Officials quickly traced the source of the light to Sasso’s home and confronted him. He initially denied his involvement and claimed he had no lasers in his home, but quickly changed his story. He then claimed he saw the helicopter while stargazing and decided to “light it up.”

A jury convicted Sasso in January 2010 on both the willful interference and false statements counts. In January 2011, Judge Joseph Tauro of the District of Massachusetts sentenced Sasso to three years in prison, two years of supervised release and a $200 fine.

Sasso, appealed, and oral arguments were held on August 1

Senior Judge Bruce Selya issued the opinion in U.S. v. Sasso, joined by Judge Michael Boudin and Judge Timothy Dyk of the Federal Circuit, who sat on the case by designation.

Selya began by observing that, jury instructions aside, there was enough evidence to convict Sasso for the count of willful interference with a helicopter. “The motion for a judgment of acquittal was, therefore, appropriately denied,” he wrote.

Selya next addressed Sasso’s claim that the jury instructions were erroneous because they did not state that the defendant must have knowledge that his conduct would result in interference with the operation of an aircraft. Sasso claimed that the fact that his actions were deliberate and intentional was not enough.

Selya wrote that reasonable jurors could interpret the disputed instruction as indicating they could convict the defendant if they found that he deliberately pointed a laser in the direction of the helicopter and “interference occurred as a natural and probable consequence of that action,” whether or not Sasso knew that interference was a “natural and probable” outcome of that action.

“So viewed, the instruction did not adequately distinguish between negligently (but innocently) pointing a laser at objects in the sky without any intent to interfere with the operation of an aircraft and ‘willfully…interfer[ing],’ which is the level of scienter demanded by the plain text of the statute,” Selya wrote.

He noted that the defendant denied or tried to explain the more damning admissions. According to court records, Sasso is a former correctional officer who was attacked in “a brief but brutal assault” by a prisoner in 1996. The Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents declared him permanently and totally disabled following that incident. He continues to suffer from chronic pain and severe migraine headaches.

At the oral argument, Sasso’s attorney, Rheba Rutkowski, a Boston assistant federal public defender, said he was “detached from the world.”

“The proof of scienter, stripped of these admissions, was less than compelling. The upshot is that the evidence of the defendant’s guilt, though sufficient, was not overwhelming,” Selya wrote.

William Weinreb, deputy chief of the antiterrorism and national security unit in the Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office, argued for the government. The U.S. attorney’s office is still reviewing the ruling and has no comment, said spokeswoman Christina DiIorio-Sterling in an email. 

Rutkowski did not respond to requests for comment.

Sheri Qualters can be contacted at squalters@alm.com.