Official convicted in West Virginia mine disaster
Thursday, October 27, 2011
BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — The only person prosecuted so far in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in decades was convicted Wednesday of lying to investigators probing the 2010 explosion that killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.
It took jurors about six hours to find 60-year-old Hughie Elbert Stover guilty on the lying charge and a second count of disposing of thousands of security-related documents following the explosion. The jury had begun deliberating Wednesday morning after hearing two days of testimony in which prosecutors painted Stover as an obstructionist and defense attorneys claimed he was a scapegoat.
He remains free pending a Feb. 29 sentencing hearing.
No one else has been charged in the mine disaster, but investigations continue. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said no potential criminal charges for others are off the table.
“There were serious matters that existed in this mine that didn’t just happen overnight or without the involvement of individuals,” he said.
Stover’s attorney, William Wilmoth, said it was too early to discuss any future motions or appeals. “While we’re disappointed at this result, we’re very appreciative of their services,” he said of the eight men and four women on the jury.
Earlier in the day, prosecutors told jurors during closing arguments that Stover misled investigators following the disaster and then sought to throw out thousands of security-related records, perhaps to protect himself.
“There’s too much at stake here,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Ellis argued, while urging the jury to “send a message that this investigation ought to be allowed to go forward.”
Stover’s defense portrayed the former Marine and law enforcement officer as a victim of the government’s zeal to blame someone for the deadly explosion.
“You wanted justice, and this is who they brought you,” Wilmoth said during his closing argument in the trial that began Monday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Blaire Malkin had earlier reminded jurors of testimony from others at the Raleigh County underground mine. These witnesses alleged that Stover instructed mine guards to send out alerts by radio whenever inspectors entered the property. Such a practice is illegal. One of the criminal charges alleges Stover denied in a November 2010 interview with investigators that there were any advance warnings at the mine.
“This so-called by-the-book guy had his own playbook and terminology,” Malkin said.
The other count alleges that Stover sought to destroy the documents the following January, by ordering a subordinate to bag and then throw them into an on-site trash compactor. Ellis suggested to jurors Wednesday that those records would prove that Stover had lied about inspection tip-offs. The attempted disposal also violated repeated warning from the mine’s then-owner, Massey Energy, to keep all records while the disaster remained under investigation. Massey officials told investigators of the trashed documents, which were recovered.
Wilmoth attributed Stover’s November statements to confusion over evolving policies at the mine, run by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co. As for the document disposal, Stover had called that the “stupidest, worst mistake” of his life when he testified Tuesday in his defense.
Questioning criminal intent, Wilmoth said Stover could have burned, shredded or otherwise destroyed the records himself, instead of delegating the task of throwing them out to a subordinate during daylight hours and in front of a security camera. Prosecutors said the documents were dumped around 6 a.m., and after being placed in trash bags. Hauling them out in their cardboard storage boxes would have drawn notice, as would Stover performing the deed himself, prosecutors argued.
In urging jurors to acquit, Wilmoth argued that Stover’s actions amounted to innocent mistakes, citing how several witnesses had described him as by-the-book and honest. Rather than targeting mine executives or engineers who may be at fault for the deadly blast, prosecutors have seized on Stover in a game of “government gotcha,” Wilmoth told the jury.
“We’re no closer to finding the real villain or villains behind this explosion,” said Wilmoth, a former U.S. attorney. “Instead, this is what they brought you.”
But prosecutors said the trial’s testimony, including Stover’s, showed that he ignored the law and his superior’s own directives. Stover proved willing to jeopardize a crucial probe to save himself, Ellis told the jury.
On Tuesday, the United Mine Workers union criticized government oversight while slamming Massey in a report on the explosion. Labeling the disaster as “industrial homicide,” the findings urge criminal charges against a number of then-executives at Massey. Alpha Natural Resources of Abingdon, Va., acquired the Richmond-based Massey in June through a $7.1 billion takeover deal.