South Korea's appeals court frees Korean Air heiress in 'nut rage' case

SEOUL (AFP) - A South Korean appeals court on Friday freed the daughter of Korean Air (KAL) chairman who was jailed for a year in February for disrupting a flight in a rage over macadamia nuts.

The High Court in Seoul ruled that 40-year-old Heather Cho Hyun Ah, who has been in jail since her arrest in December, was not guilty of the most serious charge of altering an aircraft’s route while in flight.  That overturned the verdict of a lower district court, which had jailed Cho for one year in February.

“The accused had no intention of hampering the safe operation of the plane,” High Court judge Kim Sang Hwan said, handing down a reduced sentence of 10 months, suspended for two years.  

After the hearing, Cho changed out of her prison clothes and left the court, dressed in black coat and wearing heavy dark-rimmed glasses.

Mobbed by reporters outside, Cho, walking with her head bowed, was shielded by a small group of minders who whisked her away to a waiting black sedan.

The eldest daughter of KAL chairman Cho Yang Ho, Cho was the airline's vice-president in charge of in-flight service at the time of the Dec 5 incident on board a Seoul-bound KAL flight that had just left the gate in New York.

As the plane was taxiing to the runway, Cho, sitting in first class, became enraged after a flight attendant served her some nuts in a bag, rather than on a plate.  She lambasted the chief steward over the behaviour of his cabin crew and then ordered the plane back to the gate so that he could be ejected.

In her original trial, the district court determined that an aircraft was “in flight” from the moment it began to move, and therefore Cho had violated aviation safety laws by illegally changing the plane’s route.  

But the High Court overturned that decision, ruling that the return to the gate “did not constitute a change” of flight path.  

- ‘Modest’ safety threat -

While describing the threat Cho’s actions had presented to the safety and security of the aircraft as “modest", the court upheld her conviction for hampering the plane’s operations and violence against the cabin crew.  

Chief steward Park Chang Jin had testified that Cho had made him kneel and beg for forgiveness while jabbing him with a service manual.  

The flight attendant who served the now infamous nuts has since filed a civil lawsuit, alleging Cho attacked, threatened and screamed obscenities and then pressured her to cover up the incident by lying to government regulators.

Many South Koreans saw the 40-year-old Cho’s behaviour as emblematic of a generation of spoilt and arrogant offspring of owners of the giant family-run conglomerates, or “chaebols", that dominate the national economy.

The “nut rage” case invited international ridicule and Cho was criticised at home for embarrassing the country and damaging its image.  

At the same time, some commentators had suggested the original one-year custodial term was harsh given that Cho had already been publicly humiliated and forced to resign her post with the airline.

In deciding on a sentence, Judge Kim said the court had taken into account that Cho had two-year-old twins at home, and no past criminal record.

“She knows she has to live the rest of her life tainted by this incident,” he added.