CHARLESTON (AP) — Defense attorneys rested their case Monday without calling any witnesses in the high-profile trial of ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. Their announcement came shortly after the prosecution rested following weeks of testimony asserting that Blankenship put dollars ahead of human safety in the years before the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in decades.
Blankenship could face up to 30 years in prison on charges of conspiring to break mine safety laws at Upper Big Branch Mine and lying to financial regulators and investors about company safety. The southern West Virginia mine exploded in 2010, killing 29 men.
The trial, which began Oct. 1, featured testimony from Massey management and miners, expert witnesses, federal regulators, and more.
Prosecutors painted Blankenship as a micromanager who received constant reports about what happened at Upper Big Branch, meddled in the smallest decisions at the mine and cared more about money than safety. His attorneys, meanwhile, used testimony from multiple prosecution witnesses to support his defense.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger dismissed jurors until 9 a.m. Tuesday. She told the lawyers to report back to court Monday afternoon to discuss instructions to the jury.
For the defense to rest without calling witnesses is an aggressive and risky move, said Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor who wrote a book about corporate prosecutions.
“It’s a way of saying, ‘The prosecution’s case is so weak we don’t need to respond, and we can win without calling a single witness,’” Garrett said.
It’s unusual for the defense not to call witnesses who can “humanize the defendant,” Garrett said.
Former assistant prosecutor Mike Hissam, who helped investigate the Upper Big Branch mine before becoming a defense attorney, said, “They obviously think they inflicted body blows on the government’s case during cross-examination, and that there’s more downside from repeating more of the same for the jury during their own case, coupled with the dangers of losing credibility with the jury from the government’s cross of defense witnesses.” Hissam is not involved in Blankenship’s case.
Prosecutors used phone calls that Blankenship secretly recorded in his Massey office to let the former coal baron make their case in his own voice.
In two calls, Blankenship said Massey would “blow ourselves up” without federal mine regulators, and that black lung disease wasn’t an issue worth the time regulators put into it.
Blankenship said in other key calls that a scathing internal safety memo should be kept highly confidential, and that it would be a terrible document to show up in legal discovery if there was a mine fatality.
When Massey’s board wanted to cap his salary at $12 million, Blankenship called board members “so unappreciative,” and adding that he “can’t go to the grocery store and buy groceries with (stock) options.”
Former Massey subsidiary president Christopher Blanchard testified under an immunity agreement with the government, but helped the defense during almost five days of cross-examination.
Blanchard, whose company oversaw Upper Big Branch, told prosecutors he believed Blankenship thought it was less expensive to pay fines than pay for measures to prevent safety violations. He also said most Upper Big Branch violations could have been prevented by hiring more miners or spending more time on safety tasks.
He told Blankenship’s attorneys that he himself did not break any laws and denied being involved in a conspiracy with Blankenship to violate safety regulations. The defense showed Blanchard more than 180 documents to get him to agree that Blankenship and Massey pushed for safety.
Prosecutors reminded him of conflicting answers he gave to a grand jury in November 2014 to see if he still believed he told the truth. He said he did.
After Blanchard hedged on his trial testimony, prosecutors reminded him he told a grand jury that Blankenship knew of a scheme at Upper Big Branch to warn underground miners when federal inspectors were coming, so the miners could address deficiencies before inspectors arrived.
Blanchard said prosecutors last year threatened to indict him if he didn’t cooperate with the investigation. His immunity agreement is voided if he lies.
Former Massey safety expert William Ross, who gave the tough review of the company’s safety shortcomings, provided one of the trial’s rare emotional testimonies.
Ross wept while testifying about how thrilled he was that he thought Massey was going to change. He also became emotional while talking about a 2009 meeting with Blankenship.
In the meeting, Ross said he suggested the company increase the number of workers by one in each of about 50 mine sections. He told Blankenship the company couldn’t “afford to have a disaster.”