CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Attorneys for Don Blankenship and the federal government are back in court this week as the former coal operator appeals his misdemeanour conviction in connection with the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in four decades.
Blankenship reported to a California federal prison May 12 to begin serving the maximum one-year sentence for conspiring to wilfully violate safety standards at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine before the 2010 explosion that killed 29 men.
Defence attorneys say the jury pool was biased, the prosecution was politically motivated and trial judge’s rulings were unfair.
Other coal mining executives have a different concern: Industry groups from Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia filed a brief urging the appeals court to avoid setting a precedent they fear could unfairly expose them and other mining leaders to criminal conspiracy charges. We “cannot sit idly by and allow the expansion of criminal law to the point that mere involvement of company management in certain affairs can serve as a basis, in whole or in part, for criminal prosecution,” they wrote.
Blankenship’s lead attorney sidestepped a question about his prospects of winning the appeal ahead of Wednesday’s arguments before a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.
“It does not matter how I feel,” Bill Taylor told The Associated Press in an email. “What matters is what the judges feel.”
Blogging from behind bars, a defiant Blankenship declared himself an “American political prisoner” and blamed others for the explosion. The former Massey Energy CEO also wrote a 67-page defence of his reputation and said he was distributing 250,000 copies in booklet form.
Blankenship, 66, wrote that politicians imprisoned him for political, self-serving reasons. He claimed misconduct by prosecutors, judges, law clerks, the FBI, President Barack Obama, Sen. Joe Manchin and the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Blankenship noted the jury found him not guilty of all three felony charges and said his indictment was the federal government’s “‘poster child’ case of what is wrong with the American judicial system.”
At trial, Blankenship steadfastly proclaimed his innocence, saying just before sentencing that “it is important to everyone that you know that I’m not guilty of a crime.”
Prosecutors called Blankenship a bullish micromanager who immersed himself in the smallest details of Upper Big Branch. They said Massey’s safety programs were just a facade — never backed by more money to hire additional miners or take more time on safety tasks.
Former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, who brought the government’s case, resigned late last year to run for governor, and lost in the May Democratic primary. He said he’s “extraordinarily confident that the United States will prevail on appeal.”
Goodwin said U.S. District Judge Irene Berger, who presided over the trial in Charleston, “was about as careful as she possibly could have been.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby declined comment ahead of the hearing.
If the conviction stands, Blankenship is expected to serve his entire year, since time off for good behaviour applies only to longer sentences, Ruby said.
In his blog, Blankenship said that according to prison staff, he’s the lone inmate at the 2,000-prisoner facility not serving time for a felony.