Appeals court denies Don Blankenship’s push to have his mine safety conviction overturned

A federal appeals court has denied former coal executive Don Blankenship’s attempt to overturn his 2015 conviction that led to a year in jail.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued its order Tuesday, siding with an earlier ruling by U.S. District Judge Irene Berger. The case was heard by appeals judges Paul Niemeyer, Albert Diaz and Marvin Quattlebaum.

Blankenship was found guilty of a misdemeanor mine safety conspiracy charge related to the 2010 explosion of the Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 workers.

In his appeal, the ex-coal mine operator cited memoranda of interviews of Massey Energy employees that had not been disclosed as evidence in preparation for the trial, along with documents that he contended demonstrated bias by federal regulators.

The appeals judges, like the district judge before them, said the material that was withheld represented a serious matter. But they concluded that material would not have affected the outcome of the trial.

And the appeals judges questioned the wisdom of emails by federal safety regulators but said the communications did not reflect bias by the agency itself.

“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 appeals judges wrote.

“Nonetheless, we conclude that the suppression at issue — both with respect to the individual categories of documents and when they are considered cumulatively — does not undermine confidence in the verdict. The verdict that Blankenship conspired to willfully violate mandatory mine standards was supported by ample evidence, and there is not a reasonable probability that the jury’s conclusion would have been altered by the documents’ disclosure.”

The explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine was one of the country’s worst mining disasters. The Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded that flagrant mine safety violations, including failure to properly maintain ventilation systems and allowing a dangerous buildup of methane, contributed to the conditions leading to the explosion.

At his trial, prosecutors explored whether Blankenship had willfully failed to address numerous notices of mine safety violations, focusing on production and profits over safety.

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