Appeals court denies Don Blankenship’s attempt to overturn conviction for mine safety violations
Richmond, VA — The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Dec. 7 denied former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s attempt to overturn his 2015 conviction stemming from a deadly 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, WV.
The blast killed 29 miners. A jury found Blankenship guilty of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety and health standards, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to one year in jail and a $250,000 fine.
In his appeal, Blankenship alleged that the federal government failed to produce documents that were favorable to his defense. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia concluded in January 2020 that although the documents were “improperly suppressed,” no “reasonable probability” existed that they would have changed the jury’s verdict.
Among the documents were interviews of seven Massey employees, along with internal emails and documents from the Mine Safety and Health Administration “showing, among other things, some MSHA employees’ hostility to Massey and Blankenship.”
Two of the Massey employees testified during the trial and were cross-examined extensively, while four of the other five were on Blankenship’s pretrial witness list but weren’t chosen to testify on his behalf. Blankenship and his counsel didn’t call any witnesses on his behalf.
The appeals court notes that none of the MSHA employees who wrote the “bias” emails testified during Blankenship’s trial, “nor were any of them proffered as witnesses or even – as far as we can tell – mentioned in the lengthy proceeding,” Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote in the appeals court decision.
“There is also no indication that any of these MSHA employees had any involvement in the decision by the United States Attorney’s Office to charge Blankenship with criminal offenses,” Niemeyer continues. “In these circumstances, it is far from clear how Blankenship would have been able to introduce these documents into evidence at trial or even use them to discover admissible evidence.”