A federal judge Monday entered an order recommending former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship's conviction for his role in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion be set aside.
Blankenship served a one-year prison sentence for a misdemeanor charge for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards. The April 5, 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia killed 29 men.
In the 60-page Proposed Findings and Recommendation document filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, Magistrate Judge Omar Aboulhosn agreed with Blankenship’s arguments that attorneys for the U.S. government failed to turn over evidence that was favorable to the former CEO and could have exonerated him.
In the order, Aboulhosn said it was clear errors were made by the United States, however, attempts by Blankenship, who is referred to as “the Movant” in the document, to characterize the actions as malicious were unfounded.
“A detailed and thorough review of the evidence in this case clearly shows that, while errors were made and that those errors, when collectively reviewed, could have resulted in a different verdict, the undersigned did not find that the actions taken by the United States were malicious or done in bad faith,” he wrote. “The record does not establish a scintilla of evidence that then-United States Attorney Booth Goodwin and then-AUSA Steven Ruby acted in bad faith or with malice towards the Movant.”
In total, about 1,000 documents were released by prosecutors after the trial. They included emails between Mine Safety and Health Administration employees related to violations at the Upper Big Branch Mine and 61 “Memoranda of Interviews,” or witness statements.
Aboulhosn wrote there is “no question” Blankenship’s constitutional rights were violated when the government failed to turn over evidence and thus committed a Brady violation. That refers to a rule established by the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland. The rule requires prosecutors to turn over any exculpatory evidence, or evidence that could absolve the defendant.
In previous filings related to the case, Aboulhosn noted that Blankenship said, “that his conviction continues to cast ‘an ongoing cloud over [Movant’s] professional and personal life.’”
If the recommendations are approved, Blankenship's record would be wiped clean. He could also seek civil restitution.
Attorneys for the government and Blankenship have two weeks to file responses to the recommendations. U.S. District Judge Irene Berger will make the final ruling.