New evidence admitted in trial of CEO charged in West Virginia coal mine blast

Reuters News
Posted: Nov 13, 2015 2:32 AM

By Kara Van Pelt

CHARLESTON, W.VA. (Reuters) - A federal judge ruled on Thursday that defense attorneys can introduce new evidence in the criminal trial of a former coal company executive in West Virginia charged in connection with a deadly 2010 mine explosion, as the proceedings continued for a seventh week.

Don Blankenship, the former chief executive officer of Massey Energy Co, faces three felony counts for allegedly ignoring hundreds of safety breaches at the Upper Big Branch Mine and conspiring to cover up violations.

The 2010 blast, which killed 29 people, was the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades.

After weeks of testimony and evidence presented by more than two dozen witnesses and experts, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger ruled defense attorneys could introduce new audio recordings in the case.

Berger sent home the jury and gave prosecutors until Monday to complete a review the new material.

On Tuesday, the prosecution’s 27th and final witness, FBI Special Agent Jim Lafferty, took the stand and testified that Blankenship received daily reports containing up to 600 safety violations issued at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

The FBI agent testified that he believes Blankenship put profit above safety and was aware of all the details of work conditions at the mine and discarded many alarming reports.

Defense attorney Jim Walls contended that though Massey was sent the daily reports, federal and state officials had no evidence that Blankenship had actually reviewed them.

Blankenship’s defense said the CEO was concerned with safety violations and in 2009 introduced the Hazard Elimination Program in order to create safer working conditions.

After jurors were sent home for the week, defense said the judge should consider dismissing the case. They argued that Blankenship's alleged knowledge of issues at the mine did not indicate he willfully conspired to violate federal Mine Safety and Health Administration safety laws, making such matters a civil, not criminal, matter.

(Editing by Victoria Cavaliere)