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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

W. Va. Mining Exec Found Guilty of Conspiracy

(CN) - A jury found former Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship guilty on Thursday of conspiring to violate mine safety standards, a pattern of behavior that ultimately led to a deadly 2010 explosion at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine.

The explosion at the mine killed 29 people. Blankenship was indicted in November 2014 on charges of conspiring to sidestep mine safety laws, of defrauding mine regulators, and lying to financial regulators about the mine's safety record.

The 12-member jury acquitted the former executive of the false statements and securities fraud charge, which were actually the most serious of the charges, being felonies. The charge he was convicted of is a misdomeaner.

During the trial, which began October 1 in the Charleston, W. Va. Federal Court, Blankenship's defense team raised eyebrows by declining to call a single witness on their client's behalf.

They contended there wasn't a shred of evidence that a conspiracy had occurred.

But prosecutors successfully argued that Blankenship was more concerned with profits than the lives of his workers, and reminded jurors that those who set conspiracies in motion rarely come right out and say, "I want you to break the law."

"He wants you to let him off the hook because he was careful enough to come right up to the like of putting it explicitly," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Ruby during closing arguments. "Don't do that."

Defense attorney William Taylor meanwhile argued that Blankenship was being persecuted for being rich and an often tough boss.

"We require the government to prove more than that a man was in charge of a company when a terrible tragedy occurred to convict him of crimes," Taylor said.

"We don't convict people in this country on the basis of maybes," he added.

Among those watching the trial closely was the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.

Following the announcement of the verdict, Mary Anne Hitt, director of the campaign, said in a written statement, "For decades, Don Blankenship has gambled with the lives of his employees and neighbors all in pursuit of maximum profits.

"Today, justice finally caught up with him. We hope this serves as a strong deterrent to all the other fossil fuel executives who have similar moral and legal obligations to protect their workers and the communities in which they operate," Hitt said.

On Thursday afternoon, Taylor released a statement to Courthouse News in which he described the verdict as "a stunning rejection of the government's heavy-handed and misguided power to prosecute. The jury acquitted Mr. Blankenship of all felony charges. This is a case which should never have been brought. We fully expect the Court of Appeals will agree.

"The evidence was insufficient to justify conviction on any count, and the conviction of the misdemeanor in the first count will be reversed," Taylor said.

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