An engineer convicted of obstructing justice in connection with the 2010 BP oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico won a new trial on Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval of New Orleans tossed out his December conviction of Kurt Mix, a former BP Plc (BP.L) employee, and concluded that conduct by one of the 12 jurors meant he did not have an impartial jury.
"These extreme circumstances place the very sanctity of the impartial nature of Mix's jury at issue," Duval said.
Joan McPhee, a lawyer for Mix, said she was "deeply gratified" by the ruling.
A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Mix was convicted on one of two counts of obstruction for deleting hundreds of messages he exchanged with his supervisor and a contractor in the weeks after the spill.
He was part of a team that scrambled to plug the Macondo well and figure out how much oil was leaking in what became the worst offshore environmental disaster in U.S. history.
The Macondo well explosion on April 20, 2010, killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and triggered an 87-day oil spill in which millions of gallons of crude flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Mix was the first of four current or former BP employees charged with crimes connected with the well incident to be tried.
After the trial, Mix's lawyers had interviewed several jurors without first notifying him, according to Duval. Some jurors told them that a juror had told them she heard something outside of the jury room that would allow her to not "lose any sleep" in finding Mix guilty.
In his decision on Thursday, Duval noted the jurors were under strict instructions not to disclose information about jury deliberations, and said the interviews were "inappropriate and contrary to the law of this district and circuit".
But in light of the interviews, Duval called the jurors to testify about what happened. Five members of the panel said the juror in question said she had heard information outside of the courtroom that gave her "comfort" in finding Mix guilty.
Duval said the juror's actions were in "contravention of the court's instructions" and came at a "critical time in the deliberations".
"The jury further failed to head the court's instructions in that after this information was imparted to the jury, the jury failed to inform the court of its occurrence," according to Duval.
Duval said based on the jurors' testimony alone, Mix "was not tried by an impartial jury" and deserved a new trial.
The case is U.S. v. Mix, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana, No. 12-cr-00171.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)