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Fourth Circuit upholds former coal company CEO’s conviction for mine safety violations

The Fourth Circuit denied Don Blankenship's motion to vacate his conviction.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A Fourth Circuit panel Tuesday let stand a former coal company executive’s conviction for conspiracy to willfully violate mine safety standards.

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blakenship was convicted after an explosion that killed 29 miners at the company's Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia in 2010

The federal appeals court panel affirmed U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger’s decision denying Blankenship’s motion to vacate his 2015 misdemeanor conviction. Blankship’s legal team filed the motion last year following a magistrate-judge’s recommendation the conviction be vacated following a Justice Department investigation that found federal prosecutors, including then-U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, failed to turn over documents in response to their discovery requests prior to trial.

However, in affirming Berger’s decision, the three-judge panel said that while the government erred in suppressing the documents, there was insufficient evidence to prove disclosure would have altered the outcome of the trial.

“The district court, recognizing that the documents were improperly suppressed, concluded nonetheless that they were not material in that there was not a reasonable probability that they would have produced a different result had they been disclosed before trial,” U.S. Circuit Judge Paul V. Niemeyer said in the 20-page opinion.

“Having given the record a close review ourselves, we reach the same conclusion as the district court," Niemeyer continued.

The opinion comes six years after Blankenship’s conviction in a federal court in Charleston, West Virginia. Following two weeks of deliberation, the jury acquitted him of stock fraud and two felony charges of issuing false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Following his conviction, Berger sentenced Blankenship to one year in prison followed by a year’s probation and imposed a $250,000 fine. He served his sentence at the Taft Correctional Center in Kern County, California.

After his release from prison, Blankenship continued to maintain he was wrongfully convicted, and he unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2018 and the presidency in 2020.

In his motion to vacate, Blankenship argued the suppression of the documents violated his right to due process in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinions in Brady v. Maryland and Giglio v. United States, requiring the government to disclose exculpatory and impeaching evidence.  Documents the government failed to produce at trial included investigator’s memoranda from interviews with Massey employees, internal U.S. Mine, Safety and Health Administration emails, and disciplinary records of three employees.

Blankenship’s defense, the court found, was not prejudiced by the government’s failure to turn over the memoranda as most related to Massey executives who were in close contact with Blankenship. That being the case, the government can’t be accused of playing “hide-and-seek.”

“To obtain access to the testimony of individuals who had once been his own employees, Blankenship would not have been required to scavenge, guess, search, or seek," Niemeyer wrote. "He had the evidence before him and undoubtedly was aware of it, as he indicated his choice to use the very same employees as his own witnesses at trial."

The court conceded certain exchanges between Mine, Safety and Health Administration employees were uflattering — including one referring to Blankenship as “an evil bastard,” and another expressing hope he “gets raped by a rhinoceros. Horn end." But it agreed with Berger they were immaterial as none of the employees who wrote them were involved in the investigation into the explosion. The perceived “bias” of a handful of employees does not reflect on the entire agency, the circuit court determined.

“In these circumstances, it is far from clear how Blankenship would have been able to introduce these documents into evidence at trial or even use them to discover admissible evidence," Niemeyer wrote.

“Moreover, even if Blankenship were somehow able to introduce the records into evidence, they may well have done his defense more harm than good, as the records themselves generally indicated that the reason certain MSHA employees were hostile to Blankenship was because they perceived him as being reckless with regard to mine safety,” he added.

Neither Blankenship nor anyone from his legal team could immediately be reached for comment.

Along with Niemeyer, U.S. Circuit Judge Albert Diaz, a Barack Obama appointee, and U.S. Circuit Judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum Jr., a Donald Trump appointee, comprised the panel.

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