NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The 5th Circuit ruled that the government should have allowed victims of the deadly 2005 BP refinery explosion in Texas City to participate in the plea-bargaining process, but that its failure to do so did not invalidate the plea bargain.
In a case involving extensive litigation, the appellate court ruled that a highly criticized plea deal struck between the government and BP Products North America violated victims’ rights.
The blast killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 in a refinery about 40 miles from Houston. Before the Department of Justice brought any federal criminal charges against BP, the district court issued a sealed order barring the government from notifying victims of a plea agreement in advance, because there were “too many” victims, and the media coverage might prejudice the case if negotiations failed.
Two days later, on Oct. 22, 2007, the government and BP signed a plea agreement and announced it to the public.
Victims, aggravated at being left out of the process, challenged the deal on three fronts: the fine was too low, the conditions too lenient and it violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.
The appellate court declined to throw out the plea agreement, instead sending it back to a Houston judge. But the circuit did acknowledge that the government committed “statutory violations” by excluding victims from the process. By law, victims have a right to discuss the deal with prosecutors before a plea agreement is reached.