CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The fate of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is now in the hands of the 12-member jury that’s listened to more than six weeks of testimony from 27 witnesses.
The 8-women and 4-men were handed the case Tuesday afternoon at 3:55. They met for an hour before calling it a night. They will return Wednesday morning at nine o’clock.
The lead attorneys for both the federal government and Blankenship’s defense left the panel with several questions to answer in their closing arguments.
“If there weren’t enough miners at UBB–how many would it have taken?” Blankenship’s lead counsel Bill Taylor asked. It was one of seven questions he posed to the jury. He told them they won’t be able to find the answers because the prosecution didn’t provide any during the trial that began Oct. 1.
Blankenship, 65, is charged with conspiring to break federal mine safety laws at the Upper Big Branch mine in the months leading up to the April 5, 2010 explosion that killed 29 men. The conspiracy also allegedly included advance warning of miners when federal inspectors arrived on the scene.
Taylor downplayed the advance warning charge Tuesday, telling the jury it was a “piece of coal mining culture” and claiming advance warning at coal mines would have occurred even “if Don Blankenship had never been born.”
Blankenship also faces charges that allege he lied to both shareholders and the federal Securities and Exchange Commission in the days after the UBB blast when he approved a statement that said the company didn’t condone safety violations and did strive to remain in compliance.
“There’s not a shred of evidence that there was a purpose to deceive,” Taylor said. “They’ve failed to prove Mr. Blankenship believed the statement was false.”
It’s clear, Taylor said, there’s no evidence to convict Blankenship on any of the counts.
“He’s not guilty and we should have never been here in the first place,” were the last words Taylor told the jury.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby delivered the rebuttal closing argument for the prosecution. He said it was all talk and no action when it came to safety from Blankenship and his ‘yes men.’
“All of that talk is just talk and when it came time to spend money Blankenship said no,” Ruby said
Ruby called on the jury to look at the big picture.
“UBB was the site of serious safety violations. The defendant knew it and he had the power to put a stop to it with money and time but instead he chose not to,” Ruby said. “He knew the law breaking would continue. The reason was for money.”
Ruby criticized defense attorneys whom he said wanted to shift the blame for UBB’s problems to the coal miners themselves and away from Blankenship. He characterized UBB as a “runaway train” and said Blankenship knew it.
“He had the power to stop it but instead of hitting the brakes, he pushed the accelerator to the floor and when the house of cards came down he lied about it,” Ruby said.
Ruby’s last words for the jury focused on accountability.
“It’s time to hold him accountable,” Ruby said turning to Blankenship. “Justice is waiting and justice is counting on each and every one of you. It’s long past time for justice to be done here,” he said.
In the first part of the government’s closing argument Tuesday morning, Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for West Virginia’s Southern District, used slides, pictures of witnesses and audio recordings to — in 75 minutes — again walk the jury through the case the government has been attempting to make since Oct. 7.
Pointing at Blankenship, Goodwin told the jury about what Goodwin dubbed Massey’s “lawless enterprise” operated “by the defendant and a group of ‘yes men,'” what he called a “relentless campaign of obstruction.”
Running coal, Goodwin said, was what Blankenship cared about most — not worker safety or law compliance. He used large white charts on an easel and a big red marker to individually check off all of the charges against Blankenship, while referring to evidence introduced throughout the trial.
Goodwin likened Blankenship to a drug kingpin who “doesn’t need to know the details of each drug sale” to break the law. He told jurors the defense was trying to distract them and “muddy the waters” with talk of safety steps from Blankenship, what Goodwin said were “whiz-bang, so-called innovations.”
“What keeps mines safety is people,” Goodwin said. With Blankenship, “his concern is about money.”
All of the charges, “we have proved beyond a reasonable doubt,” Goodwin concluded.
When it was his turn, Blankenship’s attorney Taylor, quickly dismissed the government’s case entirely, telling the jury “no proof” had been offered to support any of the claims.
He showed the jury a series of documents that he referred to as, “Reasonable Doubts, 1-20” and addressed the seven days of testimony from Chris Blanchard, former president of Performance Coal, the Massey mine group that included UBB, as “All by himself — one big reasonable doubt.”
The government, Taylor said in his closing argument that lasted for about 90 minutes, appeared to be taking a “maybe” approach which he described like this: maybe because Blankenship was a tough boss, maybe because he was insulting and rude, maybe because he made a lot of of money, maybe because he was in charge of the company when a terrible accident happened, maybe he’s guilty of conspiracy and fraud.
“In this country, we don’t convict people — rich or poor — on maybe,” Taylor asserted. And later, “The evidence is simply not there.”
Earlier on Tuesday morning, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger spent more than an hour reading the jury detailed instructions on each of the three charges against Blankenship. Jurors are the “sole judges of facts,” she said, and “must decide the case on evidence alone.”
READ MORE: Blankenship Jury Instructions
As she has previously in this trial, Berger specifically told the jury Blankenship is not charged with causing the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine on Apr. 5, 2010 that killed 29 coal miners.
All of the 27 witnesses were called to testify by the U.S. government. Blankenship’s defense rested its case Monday without calling one witness.
Blankenship was first indicted in Nov. 2014.