Former Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship was convicted Thursday of a misdemeanor count connected to a deadly coal mine explosion and acquitted of more serious charges.
A federal jury in West Virginia convicted Blankenship of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards. The misdemeanor charge carries up to one year in prison. Jurors did not find Blankenship guilty of a more serious conspiracy charge included in the same count that could have netted five years in prison. He was also acquitted of making false statements and of securities fraud.
Blankenship was charged with conspiring to break safety laws and defrauding mine regulators at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine and lying to financial regulators and investors about safety. An explosion at the mine in 2010 killed 29 men.
At a news conference after the verdict, U.S. Atty. Booth Goodwin called it a "landmark day for the safety of coal miners," adding that it's the first time he is aware of a chief executive of a major corporation being convicted of a workplace safety crime.
"This is, to my knowledge, unprecedented," Goodwin said. "And in this case, it is long overdue. The defendant endangered the safety of his workers for years by ignoring the laws that were intended to keep them safe."
Defense attorney William Taylor said Blankenship plans to appeal. "The case should have never been brought," Taylor said.
Judy Jones Petersen, whose brother Dean Jones died in the mine explosion, said she felt vindicated by the verdict and directed a scathing comment at Blankenship: "Although you may not be judged responsible by the courts of this land, you are guilty. The blood of these 29 people is on your hands."
Labor groups heralded the conviction as a strong message to corporate CEOs.
"A message has gone out today to every coal operator in America who is willing to skirt mine safety and health laws: You do so at your own personal risk," said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. Blankenship battled the miners union while heading Massey.