TORONTO (AP) – A judge acquitted three doctors, a New Jersey company and a former Red Cross official of criminal charges Monday in a tainted-blood scandal that infected thousands of Canadians with HIV or hepatitis and resulted in more than 3,000 deaths.

Toronto Superior Court Justice Mary Lou Benotto ruled that the defendants did not show conduct displaying wanton and reckless disregard in the use of the blood and that there was no marked departure from the standards of a reasonable person.

“The conduct examined in detail over one and a half years confirms reasonable and responsible and professional actions and responses during this difficult time,” she said. “The allegations of criminal conduct on the part of these men and this corporation were not only unsupported by the evidence, they were disproved.

“The events here were tragic,” the judge said. “However, to assign blame where none exists is to compound the tragedy.”

John Plater of the Canadian Hemophilia Society expressed bewilderment at the verdict, questioning how the judge could suggest that the defendants’ actions “were somehow professional and reasonable.”

“If you, on the one hand, have a study that says there’s a problem, and on the other hand have a study that says maybe there isn’t a problem, any reasonable person takes the product off the market. They didn’t. People were infected, and people died,” Plater said. “How that could be considered reasonable behavior is beyond us.”

The case involved blood products produced by New Jersey-based Armour Pharmaceutical Co. in the 1980s and early 1990s that turned out to be infected.

Also charged were Dr. Roger Perrault of the Red Cross; Dr. John Furesz and Dr. Donald Wark Boucher, formerly of Canada’s Health Protection Branch, and Dr. Michael Rodell, a former vice president of Armour.

Perrault pleaded not guilty to criminal negligence causing bodily harm for allegedly giving hemophilia patients an HIV-infected blood-clotting product.

The other doctors and the drug company also pleaded not guilty. Lawyers argued that prosecutors didn’t present enough evidence to prove its case.

A second trial for Perrault is set to begin later this year in Hamilton, Ontario, where he will face more criminal charges stemming from allegations that the Red Cross and its senior officials failed to take adequate measures to screen blood donors.

The Canadian Red Cross pleaded guilty in 2005 to distributing blood tainted with HIV and hepatitis C and was fined 5,000 Canadian dollars, which is now about $5,000. The Red Cross apologized and provided 1.5 million Canadian dollars for a scholarship fund and research project aimed at reducing medical errors.

Responsibility for Canada’s blood supply for all provinces except Quebec was later transferred from the Canadian Red Cross to another entity, Canadian Blood Services. After a five-year investigation, police filed criminal charges.

Last year, the Canadian government announced a compensation package of 1 billion Canadian dollars for all those infected with hepatitis C from the tainted blood, expanding a previous program that excluded thousands of people.

AP-ES-10-01-07 1744EDT

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