(CN) - The 4th Circuit vacated a sweeping gag order in the criminal case of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship over a 2010 coal mining disaster that left 29 men dead.
More than 29 news organizations, including Courthouse News Service, had sought the relief after U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sealed nearly all documents in the case and issued an unusually broad gag order muzzling attorneys, actual and potential witnesses, relatives of the disaster victims, and investigators of the explosion that occurred at the Upper Big Branch mine.
In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit on Thursday, concluded that while Berger's intensions may have been sincere, her actions could not stand.
"Although we commend the district court's sincere and forthright proactive effort to ensure to the maximum extent possible that Blankenship's right to a fair trial before an impartial jury will be protected, we are constrained to conclude that the order entered here cannot be sustained," the unsigned opinion states.
"The public enjoys a qualified right of access to criminal trials ... pretrial proceedings ... and 'documents submitted in the course of a trial,' including documents filed in connection with a motion to dismiss an indictment and other pretrial filings. ... Where the right of an accused to a fair trial is at stake, the public will not be denied access absent 'specific findings ... demonstrating that, first, there is a substantial probability that the defendant's right to a fair trial will be prejudiced by publicity that closure would prevent and, second, reasonable alternatives to closure cannot adequately protect the defendant's fair trial rights.'"
Blankenship was indicted in November 2014, on charges he knew the mining giant was committing "hundreds of safety-law violations every year" at the mine, had the ability to prevent most of them, and yet he "fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB's practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money."
The Upper Big Branch mine was the site of a massive explosion on April 5, 2010, that killed men working at a depth of about 1,200 feet. Investigators from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded in 2011 that the explosion was caused by safety violations that allowed coal dust and methane to ignite.
The disaster was the deadliest mine mishap in the United States since 1970.
Judge Berger issued her gag order two days after Blankenship's indictment.
NPR, the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, Charleston Gazette, and West Virginia Public Broadcasting immediately objected to the order, and filed a motion to intervene in Beckley, W. Va.
In their motion, the news organizations argued Berger's order erected "a barrier to the public's full understanding of these newsworthy proceedings."
Bloomberg, The National Press Club, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the First Amendment Coalition were among the nearly two dozen organizations that joined Courthouse News in becoming amici supporting petitioners.