Ex-coal CEO's criminal trial now in the hands of the jurors

AP News
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Posted: Nov 17, 2015 6:21 PM
Ex-coal CEO's criminal trial now in the hands of the jurors

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The trial of ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is now in the hands of the jury, after prosecutors argued that he routinely conspired to violate mine safety standards for the sake of profits, and the defense countered that the government presented no evidence he was involved in a conspiracy.

Both sides gave closing arguments Tuesday in Blankenship's federal criminal trial in West Virginia, which started Oct. 1.

Blankenship is charged with conspiring to break safety laws at the mine and defraud mine regulators, and with lying to financial regulators and investors about company safety in the years before an explosion killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia in 2010.

He could face up to 30 years in prison.

When it came down to it, prosecutors said, the safety efforts that Blankenship's defense cited were just talk, not backed with money for more miners or time to tend to mine safety.

"Instead of hitting the brakes, he pushed his foot down on the gas as far as it would go," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Ruby said.

Sitting in the courtroom's front row, relatives of the deceased miners quietly cried as Ruby told jurors to picture themselves working in the mine, surrounded by unsafe conditions, understaffed and without supervisors' support if they voiced concerns.

"It is long past time for justice to be done here," Ruby said in closing.

Defense attorney William Taylor said the government wanted jurors to conclude that Blankenship might be guilty because he was wealthy, insulting and rude, in addition to heading Massey during the explosion.

In the U.S., Taylor said, "we require the government to prove more than the man was in charge of a company when a terrible disaster occurred."

Blankenship was the kingpin of a massive conspiracy and ran a "lawless enterprise" with "band of 'yes men'" at the company, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin asserted. One of those "yes men," he added, was Christopher Blanchard, who ran the subsidiary that oversaw Upper Big Branch.

Taylor told jurors that Blanchard was "one big reasonable doubt" in the government's case.

Blanchard testified under an immunity agreement with the government, but helped the defense during almost five days of cross-examination. He previously told Blankenship's attorneys that he himself didn't break any laws and denied being involved in a conspiracy with Blankenship to violate safety regulations.

Blankenship's attorneys rested their case Monday without calling a single witness on his behalf.

Opting not to call any witnesses is a rare, aggressive and risky defense strategy, experts say.

The trial featured testimony from Massey management and miners, expert witnesses, federal regulators and more.

Prosecutors painted Blankenship as a micromanager who received constant reports about Upper Big Branch, meddled in the smallest decisions at the mine and cared more about money than safety. His attorneys, meanwhile, used testimony from multiple prosecution witnesses to support his defense.

Throughout the case and closing, prosecutors used phone calls Blankenship secretly recorded in his Massey office to let the former coal baron make their case in his own voice.

In key calls, Blankenship said that a scathing internal safety memo should be kept highly confidential, and that it would be a terrible document to show up in legal discovery if there was a mine fatality.

Under defense cross-examination, Blanchard said Blankenship and Massey pushed for safety.

Testifying to prosecutors, Blanchard said he believed Blankenship thought it was less expensive to pay fines than pay for measures to prevent safety violations. He also said most Upper Big Branch violations could have been prevented by hiring more miners or spending more time on safety tasks.

And former Massey safety expert William Ross, who gave a tough review of the company's safety shortcomings, provided rare emotional testimony.

He wept while testifying about how thrilled he was that he thought Massey was going to change. He also became emotional while talking about a 2009 meeting with Blankenship, in which he told the executive that Massey couldn't "afford to have a disaster."