Donald Blankenship’s conviction for willfully violating coal mine safety standards in connection with an explosion that killed 29 miners will stand, despite the fact that federal prosecutors should have handed over additional evidence to the defense, the Fourth Circuit said Tuesday.
Following the 2010 explosion at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, W.Va., chairman and CEO Blankenship was convicted of conspiring with other Massey employees to willfully violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards. The prosecution said he’d failed to address multiple notices of safety violations in order to minimize costs and increase production.
Blankenship was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. His first appeal was unsuccessful.
After the trial and in response to multiple requests, the government provided Blankenship with records of interviews of Massey employees, and internal emails and documents of the Mine Safety and Health Administration showing some employees’ hostility to Massey and Blankenship.
The government should have produced these documents before trial under Justice Department policies. An internal review determined the prosecutors failed to develop a review process to ensure that information that should be turned over in discovery was identified.
A district court recognized that the documents were improperly suppressed, but rightly denied Blankenship’s motion to vacate his conviction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said.
The circumstances of the case “are not flattering to the government, and Blankenship’s protest is not a frivolous one,” the court said. But a careful review of the suppressed evidence “does not undermine confidence in the verdict,” it added.
Blankenship “was able to elicit most of the favorable substance of the statements in the interview memoranda” through cross-examination of two of the Massey employees, the court said. The MSHA records were “unflattering” to the agency, but none of the employees who wrote the emails were involved in charging Blankenship or testified at his trial, it added.
“The verdict that Blankenship conspired to willfully violate mandatory mine standards was supported by ample evidence, and there is not a reasonable probability that the jury’s conclusion would have been altered by the documents’ disclosure,” the court said.
The opinion was written by Judge Paul V. Niemeyer and joined by Judges Albert Diaz and A. Marvin Quattlebaum Jr.
James McCall Cagle of Charleston, W.Va., represents Blankenship.
The case is United States v. Blankenship, 4th Cir., No. 20-06330, 12/7/21.