Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was wrongly convicted and sent to prison because jury instructions made it too easy to conclude that he willfully violated safety rules at a West Virginia coal mine, his attorneys argued Wednesday.
Blankenship, 66, ran the coal company that owned West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine, where a 2010 explosion killed 29 men. He’s currently serving a one-year sentence after being convicted of misdemeanor conspiracy for what prosecutors call a series of willful safety violations before the blast.
Blankenship’s attorneys filed a 94-page brief to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond contesting multiple aspects of his conviction, but Wednesday’s oral argument before a three-judge panel focused exclusively on the jury instructions.
William W. Taylor, Blankenship’s attorney, said the instructions should have required proof that Blankenship specifically intended to violate safety laws. Instead, he argued, the instructions allowed the jury to assume the violations were willful because they occurred repeatedly.
Taylor faced skeptical questioning from two of the three judges. Judge Andre Davis said the instructions from the judge seemed appropriate, given the facts of the case.
“There were scores of violations that provided the context for this instruction,” Davis said. “None of this happens in a vacuum.”
The government’s attorney, Steven Ruby, said there was ample evidence at trial to support a conclusion that Blankenship’s actions were willful. He cited a 2008 memo from Blankenship to the president of the Upper Big Branch mine, telling him to start extracting coal from certain sections and “worry about ventilation or other issues at an appropriate time. Now is not the time.”
At another point, Ruby said, when an executive objected to opening a section without a proper ventilation plan, Blankenship told the executive to stop letting safety regulators run the mine.
Taylor argued in court papers that Blankenship’s memos about ventilation came in the context of whether to focus on short-term or long-term ventilation plans for the underground mine.
After the hearing, Taylor said the judges’ questioning was in line with his expectations, and he would not hazard a guess on the outcome.
“It was a good, thorough argument,” he said.
Blankenship, 66, recently released a manifesto from prison declaring himself a political prisoner.
Of the three judges who heard the case, Chief Judge Roger Gregory was initially appointed by Bill Clinton and then re-appointed by George W. Bush. Davis and Judge James A. Wynn Jr. are Obama appointees.