Judge orders jurors to keep deliberating in criminal trial of ex-coal CEO Blankenship

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Jurors told a federal judge Thursday that they could not agree on a verdict in the trial of ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, but the judge ordered them to continue deliberating.

The jury sent a note to U.S. District Judge Irene Berger late Thursday morning asking how long they should continue deliberating and saying they could not agree.

Berger assembled jurors in the Charleston, West Virginia, courtroom and told them that given the length of the trial and the number of witnesses, they must continue trying to reach a verdict.

The jury deliberated for an hour Tuesday and all day Wednesday and Thursday without reaching a verdict. They are set to resume Friday morning.

Blankenship is charged with conspiring to break safety laws and defrauding mine regulators at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine, and lying to financial regulators and investors about safety. The mine exploded in 2010, killing 29 men.

He could face up to 30 years in prison.

The trial, which began Oct. 1, 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 called no witnesses of their own but used testimony from multiple prosecution witnesses to support his defence.

Throughout the case, 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.

Former Massey subsidiary president Christopher Blanchard testified under an immunity agreement with the government, but helped the defence during almost five days of cross-examination.

He told Blankenship’s attorneys that he himself did not break any laws and denied being involved in a conspiracy with Blankenship to violate safety regulations. The defence showed Blanchard more than 180 documents to get him to agree that 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 the 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.”