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It seems that the news stemming from the investigation into the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been consistently bad for BP and others involved in the drilling project off the coast of Louisiana.
But on June 30, the British energy giant got a bit of good news. A federal appeals court in New Orleans has agreed to void the conviction of a former engineer for BP and said he is entitled to a new trial on a charge of obstruction of justice related to the investigation of the disaster.
On June 30, the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with a lower federal court that the 2013 verdict against the defendant, Kurt Mix, was incorrect because the forewoman of the jury had tainted the deliberations. Mix was convicted of obstruction of justice but acquitted of a second count stemming from the probe of the worst spill in U.S. history.
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The lower court judge, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval, Mix’s trial judge, had cleared the defendant because he learned that the forewoman acknowledged that while riding in a courthouse elevator she had heard that other employees of BP also were defendants in the case.
Duval said the forewoman then told her fellow jurors that this conversation had persuaded her that Mix probably was guilty of the obstruction charge.
Clearing Mix was a rare defeat for the U.S. Justice Department, which has based much of its case on holding individuals as well as companies criminally responsible for the disaster.
The Deepwater Horizon exploded in flames on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers on the rig and gushing an estimated 3.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. It was capped on July 15.
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During his trial, prosecutors persuaded the jury that Mix had deleted hundreds of messages about the amount of that was being spewed into the Gulf. After Mix was cleared, the Justice Department continued to argue that the evidence against the defendant was “substantial.”
The prosecutors also argued that the conversation the jury forewoman overheard in the courthouse elevator was “innocuous.” In any case, they said, anything she may have passed on to fellow jurors was irrelevant because Duval had instructed the jury to disregard any statements that were not part of the trial proceeding itself.
In her opinion for the three-member federal appeals panel, Circuit Judge Edith Brown Clement wrote, “During a deadlock in deliberations, [the forewoman] told the rest of the jury that she had overheard something that increased her confidence in voting guilty. Other members of the jury prevented her from revealing what she had overheard.”
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Nevertheless, the forewoman “purposely exerted an extrinsic influence on the rest of the jury by telling them that she had overheard something,” Clement wrote. As a result, her opinion said, “The district court ordered a new trial based on the jury’s exposure to extrinsic evidence.”
This was the second ray of good news for BP in the past month. On June 5, a federal jury in New Orleans acquitted David Rainey, BP’s former vice president of exploration, of lying about the amount of oil the accident had spilled into the Gulf. Rainey had been accused of trying to lessen BP’s liability by deliberately minimizing the flow rate of oil from the leaking underwater oil well.
By Andy Tully Of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com