Court lifts gag order in Blankenship criminal case

Court lifts gag order in

By Peggy Mackenzie

In the case against former Massey Energy Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship, a federal appeals court lifted a sweeping gag order on Mar. 5, that sealed court documents and barred participants from talking about a West Virginia criminal case stemming from the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ordered the U.S. District Court in Beckley to lift the gag order, issued by U.S. District Judge Irene Berger the day after Blankenship’s indictment in November 2014, according to a release.

In its unsigned opinion, the 4th Circuit said it commended the District Court’s “sincere and forthright” effort to ensure Blankenship’s right to a fair trial, but that the gag order could not be sustained.

News organizations had protested that the gag order was an unconstitutional violation of their First Amendment right to gather news.

A federal grand jury indicted Blankenship on Nov. 13, 2014, for conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards, conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials, making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as securities fraud. The charges derive from circumstances that led up to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster which on Apr. 5, 2010, killed 29 miners in Raleigh County, WV. He faces up to 31 years in prison if convicted of all charges. Blankenship, who led Massey from 2000 to 2010, has pleaded not guilty and is free on a $5 million cash bond.

On Feb. 6, before the gag order was lifted, counsel for Blankenship, in addition to a request to move the trial outside the Southern District, had also made a motion to disqualify all judges in the Southern District, as reported in an article in The Register-Herald. The motion argued that a conflict of interest exists because U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin is the son of Judge Joseph R. Goodwin, an active judge in the district.

The defense stated “it is reasonable to assume” Judge Goodwin is a “friend and colleague to his fellow judges,” and given the political significance of the prosecution, the high profile nature of the case and the Goodwins’ relationship, no Southern District judge should be allowed to preside over the case.

The U.S. court of appeals responded by calling the motion a “baseless theory,” stating Southern District judges have “repeatedly proven themselves” of being capable of impartially reaching decisions based on the merits of the cases and not on their relationships with Judge Goodwin.

Massey was bought in 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources Inc for about $7 billion. Alpha was not accused of wrongdoing.

The death toll in the Upper Big Branch blast is the largest since 91 miners were killed in 1972 in a fire at a silver mine in Kellogg, Idaho, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.


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