CHARLESTON – In a rare legal move, a federal magistrate says Don Blankenship’s 2016 conviction for conspiring to violate mine safety laws should be tossed out.
In a filing released Aug. 26, Magistrate Omar Aboulhosn said the federal government failed to turn over evidence that could have helped the former Massey Energy CEO’s case.
“It’s obviously good news,” Blankenship told The West Virginia Record. “But still, the U.S. judicial system did what it thought was in its best interest.”
In his filing, Aboulhosn also said he did not find evidence that former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin nor Assistant U.S. attorney Steve Ruby acted with ulterior motives while prosecuting the case and that they did not have improper motive or malice toward Blankenship.
Goodwin, who now is in private practice, declined comment.
“Considering this is simply a recommendation from the magistrate to District Judge Berger, who is the judicial officer charged with actually deciding the issue, it is not appropriate for me to comment at this time,” Goodwin told The Record.
Aboulhosn said "there is no question" Blankenship has proven there is "a preponderance of evidence" that prosecutors violated his constitutional rights. That includes reports, internal emails, witness interview summaries and more that were withheld that could have helped Blankenship's defense in the criminal trial. Aboulhosn says the suppressed items doesn't prove Blankenship was innocent, but he says the inclusion of those materials could have altered the jury's ruling.
“Considering the suppressed evidence collectively, the suppressed evidence could have had some weight and its tendency could have been favorable," Aboulhosn wrote.
All parties in the case now have two weeks to file objections before Berger would issue her final decision. If she agrees with Aboulhosn, she would clear Blankenship’s verdict and his record.
Blankenship was convicted for conspiracy to violate mine safety and health standards in 2015 related to the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that resulted in the death of 29 miners. He spent one year in federal prison and had to pay a $250,000 fine. The conviction was upheld by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Since the explosion, Blankenship has maintained his innocence and said federal prosecutors and federal officials have withheld information and documents that would have helped his case.
“Even though the judge tried to cover up for the prosecutors, I think this recommendation is going to enlighten the public that the U.S. judicial system is flawed,” Blankenship told The Record. “The prosecutors in this case were so far out of bounds that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t intentional with malice.
“The recommendation is a step in the right direction, but it’s far short of the goal.”
Blankenship said the public still needs to know the government is to blame for the Upper Big Branch disaster.
“They (the government) know they blew it up,” he said. “The judges know the prosecutors tried to imprison me for personal reasons. It’s sad.
“I found it humorous that he wrote that my rhetoric has been vitriolic. My rhetoric has been vitriolic because if someone tries to put you in prison for life based on lies, you’d get upset, too.”
Blankenship praised Aboulhosn, who was appointed to his first judicial post by then-Gov. Joe Manchin. Blankenship and Manchin have butted heads many times over the years, including about the Upper Big Branch disaster.
“I appreciate that he (Aboulhosn) had a difficult time coming to this conclusion and writing it,” Blankenship told The Record. “I know he has good intentions on his part. But, there still is a problem with our judicial system. And, it’s not just the prosecutors. It’s the Department of Justice. It’s the Mine Safety and Health Administration, too.
“I’ll keep fighting them.”
U.S. District Court case numbers 5:14-00244 (criminal) and 5:18-cv-00591 (civil)