UPDATE: Don Blankenship asks higher court to stay free pending appeal

Published: Apr. 5, 2016 at 10:54 PM EDT
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UPDATE 4/12/16

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Attorneys for former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship filed a motion Tuesday asking that the former coal boss be released from his prison sentence pending the appeal of his case.

Blankenship was sentenced April 6 to one year in prison for his misdemeanor conviction of willfully conspiring to violating mine safety laws.

The conviction followed the April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 miners.

In the motion attorney said that their client's appeal will raise several questions -- that, if decided in Blankenship's favor, it will lead to a reversal in his case.

Those appeal issues include the following: whether or not "the district court gave an instruction erroneously defining willfulness," "... violations of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. The indictment did not name the mine safety standards that Mr. Blankenship conspired to violate," the denial of certain cross-examination, and questions about the instructions to the jury regarding the term "reasonable doubt."

Defense attorney's also argue this motion should be granted because Blankenship has demonstrated he is not a flight risk and the judge in his case, Irene Berger, has agreed.

Berger denied the original request for Blankenship to stay out of prison pending his appeal.

Defense attorneys included in the motion from federal prosecutors plan on filing an opposition to the request.

A date for Blankenship to self report to prison has not yet been set.

To see a copy of the motion, click on the Related Documents link.

UPDATE 4/7/16 @ 10:34 p.m.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- A day after a former CEO was sentenced, his attorney's have filed notice of appeal on his behalf.

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was sentenced to one year in prison, followed by one year supervised release and a $250,000 fine yesterday.

The filing of the appeal is a notification to the court and the US prosecutors that Blankenship has plans to file an appeal in his case.

The grounds for which he is appealing will be filed at a later date.

Blankenship was convicted back in December of conspiring to violate mine safety laws at the Upper Big Branch Mine where 29 miners died in April 2010 after an explosion.

UPDATE 4/7/16 @ 12:30 a.m.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Justice for all sometimes comes in small steps.

For Shirley Whitt, whose brother was killed in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine six years ago, the sentencing of the mine's former CEO, Don Blankenship, was the first step in the right direction.

"I hope today is just the beginning of changes in this industry," Whitt said. "That people in authority will start taking serious these laws."

Wednesday, Blankenship was sentenced to a year behind bars, the maximum penalty allowed for his conviction on conspiracy charges.

"I'm pleased," Whitt said. "I believe we received justice today."

But Tommy Davis, a man who lost three loved ones at the UBB mine in 2010, says the punishment does not fit the crime.

"There needs to be stricter, more harsh penalties for people like that who puts greed and money over human life," Davis said.

United Mine Workers of America's President Cecil E. Roberts agrees those sentiments.

In a statement, Roberts points out that 52 people died in Massey Energy mines while Blankenship was in charge, meaning the former CEO will serve one week per life for conspiring to violate mine safety laws.

"That is an incredibly serious charge," former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said. "The problem is that congress...still hasn't seen fit to raise the penalty for such a crime."

But Goodwin is hopeful that Blankenship's sentence puts others in power on notice to step up their own standards for safety.

"If they gamble with workers lives, they're going to be held accountable," Goodwin said.

Blankenship's attorney says they plan to file an appeal within the next two weeks and that they are confident that the Court of Appeals will overturn Blankenship's conviction.

Judge Irene Berger accepted a motion that means Blankenship does not have to be in prison within 10 days.

Currently, it is not clear when he will report to prison.

UPDATE 4/6/16 @ 12 p.m.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has been sentenced to one year in prison.

Blankenship was sentenced in federal court in Charleston on Wednesday.

Judge Irene Berger sentenced Blankenship to the maximum sentence of one year in prison for the misdemeanor charge he was convicted of on December 3. Blankenship was found guilty of conspiracy to willfully violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch Mine. That's where an explosion killed 29 miners in 2010.

Blankenship will also pay a $250,000 fine. He will also spend one year on supervised release once he serves the year in prison.

The courtroom was overflowing with families members of the miners who died in the explosion.

Several of them were prepared to give victim impact statements, but Judge Berger denied that request. The judge told the court the statements didn't have anything to do with the charge Blankenship was convicted of last year.

During the hearing, Blankenship apologized to the victims' families.

Blankenship also talked about the miners involved in the explosion, but the judge stopped him and said it was inappropriate to discuss the miners since the charge was directly related to their deaths. However, Blankenship continued to talk about the miners and then the judge interrupted again and Blankenship ended his statement.

During the sentencing, Judge Berger told Blankenship that he abused the trust of Massey Energy shareholders.

"You should be someone that we should be able to tout as a West Virginia success story instead we are here," Judge Berger said during sentencing.

Blankenship also spoke to reporters following his sentencing outside the courthouse.

"I feel badly for them," Blankenship said. "There is a lot of emotion and it's understandable."

That's when families members, including Tommy Davis, who lost three family members at UBB got upset and interrupted the interview.

Davis asked Blankenship why he has never apologized to him and the other victims' families.

"He [Blankenship] has no remorse," Davis said.

Davis says he's happy the judge gave Blankenship the maximum sentence but he wishes there were more stricter penalties.

The judge did accept a motion that he doesn't have to report to prison within 10 days. However, it's still unclear when he will report to serve his sentence.

Blankenship's attorney says they plan to file an appeal. The attorney also says they are confident the court of appeals will overturn the conviction.

Blankenship has 14 days to file the appeal.

Tuesday marked the six anniversary of the explosion. Several of the family members gathered at the UBB Memorial in Whitesville Tuesday to lay wreaths and honor the victims.

Statement from former United States Attorney Booth Goodwin who was the federal prosecutor during the Don Blankenship Trial

“While his crimes against the citizens of West Virginia deserve a more severe punishment, I am pleased that the judge sentenced Don Blankenship to the maximum one year in prison.

“My thoughts today turn to the families who lost their loved ones. While nothing can bring them back, I hope the families received a measure of justice as a result of the investigation.

“The investigation most certainly made mines and workplaces safer. This maximum sentence sends a clear, powerful message that a corrupt corporate executive cannot gamble with workers’ lives and get away with it.”

UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts issued the following statement

“I am gratified that Don Blankenship was found guilty of violating mine safety laws and that he received the maximum sentence available for that crime. However, it is outrageous that the most time in prison he can receive as a punishment is one year.

“There were 52 people killed at Massey mines while he was CEO of that company. The penalty he has received means he will get one week per death. That’s a travesty. He orchestrated a scheme to evade mine safety laws, impede enforcement of those laws, provide false information to federal safety inspectors and more, all of which put every miner who worked on any Massey property at risk of losing their lives every day they went to work.

“Far too many of them did, 29 on one terrible day six years ago. Don Blankenship deserves to go to jail, for that is surely where he belongs. And although this sentence will not begin to make him atone for his crimes, there is a higher court he will answer to someday, and I have complete faith that the justice he receives there will be more than adequate.”

Statement from U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

“This sentence proves that no mine operator is above the law, and should send a strong signal to unscrupulous employers that skirt safety rules. No prison sentence and no amount of money can bring back the 29 men who lost their lives at Upper Big Branch, but my sincere hope is that this sentence can offer some measure of closure for the families of those miners.

“That said this is a clear case of the punishment not fitting the crime. This sentence is the maximum allowable under the law, but regrettably, the criminal provisions of the Mine Act are far too weak to truly hold accountable those who put miners’ lives at risk. This administration continues to support efforts in Congress to strengthen those penalties, and we stand ready to work with members who believe that no worker should lose their life for a paycheck.”

Statement from U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito

“Coal mining is a proud West Virginia tradition, but it is not without risks. The safety of our coal miners must always be paramount. I respect Judge Berger’s decision and agree that those who break mine safety laws should be punished to the full extent of the law. While the conclusion of this trial will not ease the pain felt by families who lost loved ones at Upper Big Branch six years ago, I remain hopeful that today’s sentencing can help bring some closure.”

Statement from U.S. Senator Joe Manchin

“This awful tragedy and this case have caused us to set precedence in West Virginia. In our state, we will not allow the prioritization of production and profits over the safety of our workers. No sentence is severe enough, and no amount of time in jail time will heal the hearts of the families who have been forever devastated, and I pray that this sentence brings them some closure. I will always stand behind them. Yesterday, on the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, we remembered the 29 brave miners we lost on that tragic day. We can never bring them back, but I join all West Virginians in praying this conclusion brings some peace to the families of the miners.”

UPDATE 4/6/16 @ 9:45 a.m.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has arrived at the federal courthouse in Charleston for his sentencing hearing after he was convicted last year in connection with one of the deadliest mine disasters in U.S. history.

The hearing is expected to get underway at 10 a.m.

Blankenship was convicted December 3 of a misdemeanor conspiracy to willfully violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch Mine. There's where an explosion killed 29 miners in 2010.

Blankenship faces up to a year in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Our crew at the courthouse says Blankenship was seen walking to his attorney's office on Truslow Street about 9 a.m. Then, about 9:30 a.m., he was driven to the courthouse in a minivan with his attorneys.

Several of the family members of the miners who died in the explosion have also arrived at the courthouse to attend the hearing. Some of them have prepared victim impact statements to read during the hearing.

Tuesday marked the six anniversary of the explosion. Several of the family members gathered at the UBB Memorial in Whitesville Tuesday to lay wreaths and honor the victims.

We have a crew at the federal courthouse in Charleston.

Keep clicking on WSAZ Mobile and WSAZ.com for the latest information.


CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship could be sentenced up to a year in prison and fined up to $250,000 for a conviction connected to the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in four decades.

He is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday in Charleston federal court.

Legal experts say just as important as the length of his sentence is whether he will stay free pending his appeal. If he heads to prison before an appellate decision, his defense attorneys say the decision may not come until after his whole sentence is served.

Blankenship was convicted Dec. 3 of a misdemeanor conspiracy to willfully violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch Mine. The southern West Virginia coal mine exploded in 2010, killing 29 men.