CHARLESTON, W.Va. — “I am not guilty of a crime,” former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship said Wednesday shortly before receiving the maximum possible sentence in U.S. District Court in Charleston for how he ran the Upper Big Branch Mine.
Blankenship was sentenced to one year in prison, one year of supervised release and was ordered to pay a $250,000 fine for conspiring to willfully violate mandatory mine safety laws prior to the explosion at the Raleigh County mine on Apr. 5, 2010 that killed 29 coal miners.
“You, Mr. Blankenship, created a culture of noncompliance at UBB,” U.S. District Judge Irene Berger said during his sentencing hearing. “As CEO, you are ultimately responsible,” she said, for compliance with Mine Safety and Health Administration regulations.
The sentence, Berger said, reflected the “seriousness of the offense.”
“The only thing that could have made it better was if they took him out in handcuffs,” said Sherry Keeney Depoy, whose brother Boone Payne died at UBB, of the sentence and Berger’s statements to Blankenship.
Though Blankenship was not charged with nor convicted of causing the UBB explosion, the “lost coal miners were great coal miners,” he told Berger when he was given the opportunity to address the court.
He expressed “sorrow for the families and everyone for what happened” and thanked the people who had supported him since his indictment, including his attorneys and West Virginians who “wished him well.”
Until a date is set for Blankenship to self-report to prison, he remains free on a previous $1 million surety bond.
Blankenship and his lead attorney, Bill Taylor, were greeted with angry shouts from several family members of the UBB victims as they left the Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse on Wednesday.
“That man has no remorse for human life at all and I wanted to make sure he knew who I was before he left here,” said Tommy Davis, a former UBB miner whose son, brother and nephew were killed at UBB.
“If you worked on those men like we did when they came outside, you smelled them and you looked at them, then you know where I come from.”
“Breaking mine safety laws kills people. Breaking mine safety laws kills coal miners,” Steve Ruby, assistant U.S. attorney, told Berger earlier in court. “Not every time, of course,” he noted, but “do it enough and it eventually catches up with you. That’s what history teaches us.”
When he spoke, Taylor maintained Blankenship’s innocence and said he was confident the misdemeanor conviction would be overturned on appeal. He said the case was the result of the combination of “tragedy” and “a CEO who is not warm and fuzzy.”
In court, Taylor attempted to play a part of the “60 Minutes” report on the Blankenship trial as he claimed former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, now a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in West Virginia, was using the case to further his own political ambition.
Goodwin, who attended Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, denied that.
“They didn’t have anything else. It was very clear from the very beginning of this litigation that Don Blankenship perpetuated a culture of noncompliance,” Goodwin said. “Hopefully, this will provide some measure of closure to the victims of this horrible tragedy.”
Though crime victims do have rights to address courts, Berger said those victims must be “directly and proximately harmed by the offense.”
Because their victimization was tied to the UBB explosion, Berger said none of the individuals seeking to address the court during Blankenship’s sentencing met the legal threshold to do so. “I am sorry that that has happened,” she said to those who’d attended Blankenship’s sentencing hearing expecting to speak.
Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex Mullins died at UBB, read his statement outside of the courthouse.
“Don Blankenship sentenced these men’s families to a world of heartbreak, loss and torment for the rest of their lives,” he said. Of the 12 month sentence, “That is 365 days. If you break that down, that is 12 and a half days for each man that lost his life on Apr. 5th.”
Judy Jones Petersen, sister to Dean Jones, a UBB victim, said Berger echoed much of what she had wanted to say.
“She definitely said what we, as family members, wanted to hear and we’re definitely happy that we got the maximum,” Jones Petersen said. “It’s not an appropriate justice, but it is the justice that we were able to get here today and so we’re really grateful.”
A defense motion asking that Blankenship be permitted to delay the start of his prison sentence pending the result of an appeal to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals was denied.
“You should be someone that we are able to tout as a West Virginia success story,” Berger told Blankenship. Instead of that, she said of the sentence for the case of the United States vs. Don Blankenship, “We are here as a result of your part of a dangerous conspiracy.”