November 20, 2015 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

The criminal trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship went into its seventh week. The jurors listened to the prosecution’s 27th (and final witness) and heard the defense team rest its case. Thanks to the reporting from the federal courthouse in Charleston, WV by Ken Ward Jr. and Joel Ebert of the Charleston Gazette, I can share some of my favorite quotes from the week.

The week started with a bang when Blankenship’s lead defense attorney–without calling a single witnesses— announced: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defense rests.”

Ward talked with legal scholars to shed light on the defense team’s tactic. Ward writes:

“Pat McGinley, a West Virginia University law professor who has closely followed the case, said that the defense moves suggests that Blankenship’s lawyers ‘decided that they did the best they could poking holes in the prosecution’s case through cross-examination of government witnesses…’”

In the prosecution’s closing arguments, US attorney Booth Goodwin called Blankenship a “kingpin” who “ran a massive, massive criminal conspiracy.”  Assistant US attorney Steve Ruby asked jurors to “picture” themselves in the shoes of the Upper Big Branch coal miners.  For example:

“Picture telling your bosses you were afraid something bad, something serious was going to happen at UBB, telling anybody who would listen and being ignored.”

“Picture asking over and over again for a rock duster that works and being ignored.”

“Picture having your boss tell you to go reroute the air in the mine because safety inspectors are coming and you’ve got to trick them into thinking there’s enough fresh air in the part of your mine where your friends are working.”

The picture painted by Ruby made an impression on the sister of Dean Jones, one of the 29 coal miners killed at the Upper Big Branch mine. In a 1-minute video produced by the Charleston Gazette, Judy Jones Petersen said:

“I find Steve Ruby to be brilliant and eloquent. That was the highest moment in that courtroom for me because I was elevated to a place where I really believed that my brother’s voice was being channeled through Steve Ruby. ….I heard my brother’s voice. …It was certainly heart wrenching to hear it, but it was so important for the jury and the rest of the people in the gallery to know that that is what our loved ones lived through.”

Blankenship’s attorney made his case that his client should be acquitted. Ward writes:

William Taylor III “…argued that Blankenship should not be held responsible for a longstanding practice of coal mine guards alerting workers underground when government inspectors arrived. ‘The government wants you to convict Don Blankenship just because the practice of advance notice exists. It takes this piece of coal mining culture and wants you to convict Don Blankenship because of it.’”

“Taylor also argued that it was not a crime for Blankenship to not believe that hiring more miners was the answer to the Upper Big Branch Mine’s safety problems. “How many more was he supposed to hire to not be a criminal?”

William Taylor III insisted that the government did not present evidence to prove the charges against the former CEO. (Charges that he conspired to violate mine safety laws and interfere with mine safety inspections, as well as making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission about Massey Energy’s compliance with safety regulations.)

Ward writes:

“Taylor said prosecutors may have shown that Blankenship pushed for more coal production, was tough to work for, and made himself and Massey a lot of money.   …He said the case against Blankenship is weak, based only on a collection of ‘maybes.’ ‘In this country, we don’t convict people — rich or poor — based on maybes’ he said. ‘It requires proof.’”

On Thursday, November 19 after a 1 ½ days of deliberations the jury sent Judge Berger a note: “How long do we deliberate? We cannot agree.”

Ward writes:

“Berger told the jurors that given the length of the trial, the number of witnesses and the limited amount of time they had so far deliberated, that she wanted them to continue their deliberations.”

On Friday, the jurors had another question for the judge. Ward explains:

The judge acknowledged the jury’s note, saying that ‘some of the jurors wanted clarification’ about the words ‘condone’ and ‘strive.'”

As Ward notes, those words are at the heart of case against Blankenship.

The jury will return for more deliberations on Monday.

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