Court upholds conviction of 'king of coal' over fatal mine blast

A memorial to honor the 29 West Virginian Coal Miners that lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch mining disaster on April 5th, 2010 is seen along Route 3 near Whitesville, West Virginia April 13, 2015. Picture taken April 13, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Tilley
  • Former Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship loses bid to overturn already-served sentence
  • Appeals court said prosecutors failed to produce documents, but still enough evidence to convict

(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected former coal executive Donald Blankenship's bid to vacate his conviction and already-completed sentence for conspiring to violate safety standards at a West Virginia mine where a deadly blast occurred in 2010.

A unanimous panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a jury's 2015 guilty verdict against the former Massey Energy Co chief executive for his role in the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 workers, though it also faulted federal prosecutors for failing to turn over evidence in the case.

Upholding Blankenship's conviction for the second time, the appeals court found that the jury's verdict was sufficiently supported by evidence to be allowed to stand.

At the same time, U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer, who wrote Tuesday's opinion, chided the Department of Justice for not producing the documents that gave rise to the appeal until after the trial had concluded.

"The circumstances that have brought us to this point in the prosecution of Blankenship are not flattering to the government, and Blankenship's protest is not a frivolous one," the opinion said, but they do not "undermine confidence in the verdict."

Blankenship, once dubbed West Virginia's "king of coal" for his working-class background and tough approach to business, finished in 2017 a one-year sentence over his conviction. He ran Massey, Appalachia's largest coal producer, from 2000 to 2010. In 2018, he lost a race to become the Republican U.S. Senate nominee in West Virginia.

Earlier that year, he had asked a Beckley, West Virginia federal court to throw out his sentence and misdemeanor conviction, citing memoranda summarizing interviews with high-ranking Massey employees and internal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) documents that prosecutors hadn't produced before trial.

U.S. District Court Judge Irene Berger last year denied his motion, finding that although the documents should not have been "suppressed," they would not have changed the trial's outcome because the case's core evidence was testimony from miners with direct knowledge of the safety conditions.

Niemeyer on Tuesday agreed with that assessment. He was joined by U.S. Circuit Judges Albert Diaz and Marvin Quattlebaum.

Blankenship's attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment. DOJ spokesperson Joshua Stueve declined to comment.

The 4th Circuit upheld Blankenship's conviction for the first time in 2017.

The case is United States v. Blankenship, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-6330.

For U.S.: Thomas Booth, Nicholas McQuaid and Robert Zink of the Department of Justice

For Donald Blankenship: James Cagle

Read more:

Ex-coal CEO fresh from prison urges Trump to probe 2010 blast

U.S. top court rejects convicted coal executive's appeal

Court upholds conviction of Massey ex-CEO in fatal mine blast

Former U.S. coal CEO gets year in prison for blast that killed 29

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