Conviction of former Montcoal security chief affirmed by Fourth Circuit

By Nathan Bass | Dec 20, 2012

RICHMOND, Va. – On Dec. 14, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the conviction of former Montcoal Mine chief of security Hughie Elbert Stover on charges related to the investigation of the deadly mine explosion of April 2010.

Judge Max O. Cogburn wrote the opinion in which judges J. Harvie Wilkinson and Andre M. Davis joined.

In April of 2010, a mine explosion at the Montcoal Mine in Raleigh County killed 29 coal miners.

According to the opinion, Stover, security chief of the mine since 1999, received instructions from company attorneys “almost immediately thereafter” not to destroy any documents because of the state and federal investigations that had commenced.

Evidence at the trial, held at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, showed that the security officers at the mine would announce the arrival of mine inspectors when the inspectors arrived at the front gate of the mine.

This practice was illegal and, the opinion states, the operators of the mine were aware of the illegality, yet instructed Stover to have his guards announce the visitation of the inspectors anyway.

“Despite the illegality of such advance warning, these and other incidents were routinely logged by Montcoal security officers and then stored in 'the barracks,' an onsite storage facility,” the opinion says.

Stover was deposed by federal agents in November 2010 and “he consistently testified that mine security did not announce the arrival of mine inspectors.”

Evidence presented at trial also showed that Stover, several months after being deposed, ordered another guard “to dispose of the security records that were stored in the barracks by taking them to a trash compactor/dumpster at the mine.”

The FBI, after grand jury testimony alerted it, inspected the dumpster and found the documents.

Stover was convicted of making false statements to a department or agency of the United States and for attempting to destroy documents material to an ongoing investigation. He was sentenced to 36 months imprisonment.

On appeal, Stover alleged that the district court erred in denying motions to suppress his deposition testimony “because he was in custody at the time of the deposition.” He asserted that he was entitled to his Miranda rights, which are applicable when a defendant is in custody.

“Having examined all the circumstances surrounding the deposition of Stover in this matter, we cannot find that there was either a 'formal arrest' or 'restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with formal arrest,' that would have caused a reasonable person in defendant’s position to perceive that he lacked the freedom to terminate the questioning and leave," the Fourth Circuit wrote.

“Not only was no one present with any authority to arrest defendant, he was at all times represented by counsel who could have advised him of just such right. Finding no error, we affirm the district court’s denial of such motion to suppress.”

Stover also argued, in the alternative, that the district court erred in denying his Motion for Judgment of Acquittal or New Trial because the government did not put on evidence that he knew his statements were “material.”

“Our review of the evidence of record undercuts Stover’s contention, as it contains ample evidence upon which a reasonable jury could have found that the false statements made by defendant were both knowing and material," the opinion says.

“Put plainly, there is no requirement that the government prove that defendant knew his statements were material to [federal agencies]."

Stover made several other arguments related to deficiencies in the subpoenas and other issues. All of this the Court rejected.

“Finally,” Cogburn wrote, “Stover argues that the government failed to prove that he had any criminal intent when he ordered the destruction of the records.

“Evidence adduced at trial, however, included evidence that Stover: (1) was aware of the ongoing FBI investigation; (2) knew the focus of such investigation was on the practices of the security guards, including whether inspectors were announced; and (3) that the FBI was interested in the records he ordered destroyed.

“Substantial evidence supports the jury’s conclusion that Stover acted with the required criminal intent when he ordered a subordinate to destroy records in January 2011... In sum, we affirm the district court’s judgment in its entirety.”

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