By Nick Morgan, Mail Tribune
A former Grants Pass helicopter company executive serving 12 years for falsifying aircraft records that led to nine deaths is seeking early release from federal prison for fear of contracting the coronavirus — despite already having recovered from a bout of COVID-19.
Steven Metheny, 50, is incarcerated at a low-security institution in Lompoc, California, for lying about helicopter weight limits while he was vice president of now-defunct Carson Helicopters, leading up to the Iron 44 helicopter crash that killed seven Southern Oregon wildland firefighters and two pilots in the summer of 2008.
Last month, Metheny filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Medford seeking compassionate release from prison.
The U.S. Attorney’s office argued last week that Metheny hasn’t showed any “extraordinary and compelling” reasons to justify his release.
“The mere existence of COVID, without more, is not sufficient to justify compassionate release,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Potter wrote in a Nov. 2 response.
Metheny’s Oct. 7 motion for compassionate release was sealed in court records, but Potter argued in her response that his weight is the only eligible health condition that increases his risk of COVID-19.
“But, obesity alone should not result in defendant’s release,” Potter wrote.
Metheny has not shown that the federal Bureau of Prisons would not be able to care for him if he contracts the coronavirus, Potter argued.
“In fact, Metheny has had COVID and recovered,” Potter wrote. “He relies on the risk of reinfection and the conditions at FCI Lompoc to further support his motion.”
Potter stated that while the federal correctional institution did have an outbreak, as of Nov. 2 it had no infected inmates and three staff members who had tested positive.
According to the Bureau of Prisons coronavirus website, no inmates or staff are currently positive for COVID-19; however, 713 inmates and 17 staff have recovered from the illness since the start of the pandemic, and two inmates have died. The facility holds 968 inmates, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
Potter separately argued that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over Metheny’s release because he’s challenging a judge’s ruling earlier this year in an attempt to appeal his case on claims of ineffective counsel.
Metheny had claimed his defense lawyer led him to believe that the damages in his case were going to be zero dollars if he pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, and therefore expected a 10-month sentence rather than the 151-month sentence imposed. In her May 27 ruling, Aiken called Metheny’s claims that his defense lawyer made false promises “palpably incredible.”
Potter claimed that the Medford court can still deny Metheny’s motion or provide the Ninth Circuit an indicative ruling. Elsewhere in her response, she pointed to attempts to evade the consequences of Metheny’s actions.
“Metheny’s fraud was extensive and not only caused a financial loss, it put firefighters at risk. The sentence imposed in this case was reasonable and appropriately punished Metheny for his crimes,” Potter wrote. “Nothing has changed; the sentence is reasonable and appropriate.”
Court records show the next hearing on Metheny’s motion for compassionate release is a phone conference scheduled for Nov. 13 in U.S. District Court in Eugene.