Former Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship is headed to prison even as he appeals his conviction for conspiring to flout mine-safety laws in connection with the worst U.S. coal industry disaster in almost 40 years.
The federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, on Thursday turned down Blankenship’s bid to stay out of prison while it weighs his challenges to a jury’s 2015 finding that he plotted to speed up production at a West Virginia mine by ignoring safety rules. An explosion linked to a build up of coal dust ripped through the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010 and killed 29 workers.
The ruling means Blankenship, who owns a mountaintop castle in West Virginia, must report to a federal prison in California sometime on Thursday. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons hasn’t publicly specified where the former CEO will be imprisoned.
“I’m happy the system is making Mr. Blankenship start serving his sentence,” Judy Jones Petersen, sister of one of the miners killed in the 2010 blast, said Thursday. “I hope he spends the next year reflecting on how his greedy behavior created an environment that wound up taking the lives of 29 workingmen.”
Federal prosecutors in Charleston, West Virginia, had opposed Blankenship’s request to stay free on a $1 million bond, saying U.S. law only allows service of criminal sentences to be delayed for “exceptional circumstances.” Blankenship’s case didn’t meet that test, the prosecutors said.
William Taylor, Blankenship’s lead defense lawyer, didn’t immediately return a call for comment on the appeals court’s decision.
The former CEO was convicted on a misdemeanor conspiracy charge, which carried a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $250,000 fine. Blankenship has already paid the fine, according to court filings. Jurors acquitted him of two felony charges which carried more substantial jail time.
The conviction capped a five-year effort by federal prosecutors to hold Blankenship accountable for safety violations that led to the explosion at the mine about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of the state capital of Charleston.
Blankenship’s lawyers contend in his appeal the government didn’t prove the former CEO committed criminal acts, including intentionally violating mine safety laws, and that U.S. District Judge Irene Berger didn’t properly instruct jurors on what constituted reasonable doubt about his guilt.
Those issues raised enough substantial questions about his guilt that the appeals panel should’ve let Blankenship remain free, his lawyers said.
“To know that he is going to be put behind bars is a relief to me,” said Gary Quarles, whose son was killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion. “I had been wondering how long this was going to go on with his lawyers, his money and everything.”
The case is U.S v. Blankenship, No. 16-4193, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit (Richmond).
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