Ex-BP Engineer Snags Retrial for Jury Problem

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A former BP engineer convicted of obstruction of justice for deleting an incriminating string of text messages in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is entitled to a new trial, the Fifth Circuit ruled.
     Kurt Mix’s 2013 conviction cannot stand because the jury foreperson admitted that she had been exposed to outside evidence while in a courthouse elevator that helped sway her decision, according to the Tuesday decision.
     “Even one juror’s prejudice is sufficient to warrant a new trial,” Justice Edith Clement wrote for a three-judge panel.
     Mix, 53, was indicted two years after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 men and caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history. A jury convicted the former engineer in 2013 of deleting about 331 text messages to his boss that revealed the exact amount of oil leaving the accident site each day.
     Authorities eventually recovered all but 17 of the text messages and discovered that the public estimate of the amount of oil being released each day was significantly deflated by Mix.
     “While Mix did not destroy other documents or information related to the estimated flow rate, the government alleged that he was candid with only a few people, including (John) Sprague, who was both his supervisor and close friend,” Clement wrote. “So, deleting his texts to Sprague would hide Mix’s actual thoughts about the flow rate.”
     Mix’s attorney quickly moved for a new trial, however, after learning that the jury foreperson overheard about the prosecution of other BP employees involved in the oil spill. Jurors revealed that, while deadlocked, the jury foreperson announced that the outside information she overheard gave her comfort in voting to convict Mix. The jury returned its guilty verdict two hours later, though the jury foreperson denied ever disclosing the information to the rest of the jury.
     The trial court deemed the evidence prejudicial, ordering a retrial, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed Tuesday.
     Prosecutors failed to demonstrate that evidence against Mix was so overwhelming that the issue of juror misconduct was harmless, the court found.
     “The district court did not abuse its discretion when it found that the jury was prejudiced in two separate ways,” the 17-page ruling states. “First, juror one was prejudiced by hearing that other BP employees were being prosecuted. Second, the rest of the jury was prejudiced by the foreperson’s enigmatic statement that she heard outside information that gave her comfort in voting guilty.”

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