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Federal judge upholds conviction of former coal CEO Don Blankenship

A federal judge upheld former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship's misdemeanor conviction on charges of conspiring to violate mine safety laws.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger said that prosecutors' failure to disclose certain evidence during the former executive's trial did not result in prejudice to Blankenship, in a Jan. 15 filing in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia. A magistrate judge determined in 2019 that while there was no evidence of malice on the part of the U.S. attorneys who prosecuted Blankenship, his conviction should be set aside due to thousands of pages of suppressed evidence. Berger, the judge that presided over the original trial, refused to toss the conviction in her latest order.

"Having considered all of the arguments made by [Blankenship], the nature and content of the undisclosed documents, the substantive evidence presented at trial and the applicable law, the court finds [Blankenship] has failed to meet his burden to establish that a reasonable probability exists that the outcome of the trial might have been different had the suppressed evidence been disclosed prior to trial," Berger wrote. "Specifically, after thorough review, nothing has been presented to undermine confidence in the jury's verdict."

The evidence included several witness statements and communication from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Magistrate Judge Omar Aboulhosn wrote in an August 2019 court filing that "there is no question" that prosecutors violated Blankenship's constitutional rights during his trial. Berger noted that the "sheer number of undisclosed documents is troubling," but said assertions from Blankenship's counsel about his knowledge of undisclosed materials and the impact of nondisclosure "are simply inaccurate."

"The legal profession and this court demand more of all concerned," Berger wrote. "Importantly, however, there is clear precedent that guides the analysis and dictates the ultimate resolution in this matter."

Blankenship was convicted of the misdemeanor in early 2016 but acquitted of felony charges by a jury. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The charges levied against Blankenship stem from investigations into the 2010 explosion of the Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 coal miners, though the charges did not directly implicate him with causing the explosion.

The former coal executive lost a recent bid for the U.S. Senate but is currently campaigning as a Constitution Party candidate for the 2020 presidential election.