Jurors returned a guilty verdict on Thursday for the former chief executive of an energy company who was found to have intentionally breached safety standards in a West Virginia mine, where 29 people were killed in a 2010 explosion.
A federal jury found Don Blankenship guilty on the misdemeanor charge of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards, though he was cleared of additional charges of making a false statement and a more serious conspiracy charge that could have sent him to jail for up to five years.
Even a partial conviction is expected to have profound effects on the way mine companies and their top executives are held to account for safety practices. The indictment alone was welcomed by safety watchdogs as a major turning point in corporate accountability in the coal industry.
“There have long been bad choices in the coal mining business, but the fall guys have always been the lower echelon employees,” Jim Lees, a former prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer, based in Charleston, W.V., told The Christian Science Monitor following Mr. Blankenship's indictment. “I don’t recall prosecutors ever making their way to the boardroom.”
The conviction carries a maximum fine of $250,000 and up to one year in prison. The sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 23. Blankenship’s attorney, William Taylor, said he would appeal the decision on the grounds the “case should have never been brought out.” A 12-person jury was deadlocked for two weeks before settling on the partial guilty verdict.
Some friends and family of the victims said they felt a sense of relief over the decision.
Judy Jones Petersen, who lost her brother Dean Jones in the mine explosion, told the Associated Press she believed justice was served.
“Although you may not be judged responsible by the courts of this land, you are guilty,” she said, referring to the jury’s acquittal of Blankenship on more serious charges. “The blood of these 29 people is on your hands.”
Throughout the trial and the years leading up to it, relatives of the victims have called for the former executive to receive a prison term. His conviction is now being viewed as the linchpin of an intensive investigation into Blankenship’s company, Massey Energy.
Prosecutors spent much of the two-month trial casting Blankenship as intimidator who over-managed the mine’s operation and would have been well aware of cracks in safety protocols, using recorded phone calls, employee testimony and a safety memo to show the extent of negligence.
"The defendant wants you to reward him for being smart enough not to come right out and say, 'I want you to break the law,' " Assistant US Attorney Steven Ruby told jurors in closing arguments. "He wants you to let him off the hook because he was careful enough to come right up to the line of putting it explicitly, putting it into words without doing it. Don't do that."
This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.