Ex-BP engineer hopes for acquittal or new trial in hearing on his obstruction conviction

NEW ORLEANS – The lawyer for a BP engineer found guilty of obstructing an investigation into the 2010 Gulf oil spill urged a judge to throw out the conviction Thursday, arguing the evidence was insufficient and the jury forewoman heard statements outside of the trial that influenced the panel’s decision.

Kurt Mix’s attorney Joan McPhee said the forewoman in Mix’s December trial told a then-deadlocked jury that she had heard statements that affirmed her view that Mix was guilty. She overheard on an elevator that people in addition to Mix were facing trial.

Mix was on trial for deleting text messages in what prosecutors said was an attempt to hamper the government’s criminal investigation of the spill.

Both sides agree that other jurors never heard the substance of the forewoman’s information because they stopped her before she shared it. But McPhee argued the forewoman communicated to jurors that she had heard information that “affirmed her view that the correct verdict was guilty.”

That was soon followed by the formerly deadlocked jury convicting Mix on one of two obstruction counts, she said.

Prosecutors said there’s no evidence the forewoman’s information made a difference in the deliberations. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Saulino noted the forewoman voted to acquit Mix on the second count.

Prosecutors also argued the evidence regarding the juror was gathered illegally by defence attorneys who should not have interviewed jurors after the trial without court supervision.

McPhee said the defence team learned of the overheard conversation and its possible effect on the jury while making a legal and proper inquiry of jurors, aimed at getting “professional feedback” about the way the case was presented.

U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval said the defence team should have contacted the court rather than interview jurors.

“You made a mistake, Ms. McPhee,” Duval said.

The hearing also dealt with motions to order a new trial or to simply declare Mix not guilty based on what the defence said was insufficient evidence.

Mix was accused of deliberately deleted text messages to and from a supervisor and a BP contractor to stymie a grand jury’s investigation of the spill. The subject matter was the amount of oil flowing from the blown-out well.

McPhee said there is ample evidence that Mix shared information about the flow rate throughout the government investigation and that his deletion of the single string of emails fell far short of what is needed for a conviction.

McPhee also pointed to character references made in court on behalf of Mix.

“Kurt Mix is a person of uncommon decency, integrity and honesty,” she said, later adding, “Good people make mistakes all the time.”

Another Mix attorney, Michael McGovern, said prosecutors failed to prove that Mix knew the information he deleted would be pertinent to a grand jury investigation that he did not know about and that had not yet even begun.

Prosecutors said there was a great deal of evidence and that Mix knew of the possibility of a grand jury investigation.

“This was no accident,” Saulino said. “Mr. Mix intentionally deleted a text message string with his supervisor.”

Mix was on a team of experts who tried in vain to stop the flow of oil using a technique called “top kill.” He had access to internal data about how much crude was flowing from the blown-out well. Saulino said he failed to disclose, at key times, that evidence indicated the flow was far greater than what the top kill technique could stop.

Duval gave no indication when he would rule.