Don Blankenship sentenced to maximum one year in prison, $250K fine

Federal judge does not allow victim impact statements at the sentencing of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. (WCHS/WVAH)

CHARLESTON, W.V. (WCHS/WVAH) - A federal judge Wednesday sentenced former Massey Energy Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship to the maximum one year in prison, one year of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.

The sentence in the landmark case was handed down by U.S. District Judge Irene Berger in federal court in Charleston.

Blankenship was convicted Dec. 3 of a misdemeanor conspiracy to willfully violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch Mine, where an explosion killed 29 men in 2010. The former coal chief's historic trial had 24 days of testimony and 27 witnesses take the stand.

The sentencing followed a number of key decisions this week by the judge in which parties had been seeking restitution from Blankenship. On Tuesday, she denied restitution that was being sought by 94 individuals from Blankenship. It came on the heels on another decision by the judge - a ruling she made Monday when she denied a push by prosecutors to make Blankenship pay $28 million in restitution to Alpha Natural Resources.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors also filed a response Tuesday in federal court opposing Blankenship's motion for continued release pending appeal in his criminal case.

Berger did not allow any victim impact statements at the sentencing for Blankenship on Wednesday, because she said Blankenship was not directly accused of being at fault in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion.

The U.S. District Court in Charleston took a 10-minute recess at about 11:10 a.m. Wednesday before the sentencing hearing resumed.

Earlier at the sentencing, the judge had accepted sentencing guidelines that range in a sentence of 10 to 12 months in prison and a fine of up to $30,000, although she was considering going above that range. The maximum allowed is a fine of $250,000.

At the sentencing, Steve Ruby, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Blankenship's case, issued a strong statement.

"Breaking mine safety laws kills coal miners," Ruby said. "If the judge doesn't impose the maximum sentence it will show that is a good gamble for a CEO to take."

Ruby said if the maximum sentence of one year of prison and a $250,000 sentence is not imposed, "the justice system is not taken seriously."

In court, Blankenship broke what largely has been 18 months of silence in the case. He said he was not guilty of a crime and he wanted to talk to the family members of the UBB miners who lost their lives. He described those who were killed as great miners and great people. Blankenship thanked the people who wrote him letters, and he also expressed gratitude for his defense team.

Blankenship's defense team said there were two aspects of the case - just rhetoric and then there was evidence. He said the evidence in the case at best showed that Blankenship didn't hire enough miners to take care of the problems at UBB. But Blankenship's defense team argued that hiring more miners didn't necessarily fix safety problems, mentioning how the Marfork Group hired more miners and still got more citations after the hirings.

While the family members of the victims were not able to make impact statements in court, several of them still had strong words to say outside the courthouse.

"I guess what I want to say to Judge Berger that even though I chose to forgive Don Blankenship, it doesn't change the fact the he deserves the most severe sentence and fine allowable," said Shirley Witt, a sister of one of the victims, prior to when Blankenship's sentence was handed down. "His actions gave Boone and the 28 other miners a sentence of death and us a life sentence of sorrow."

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., issued the following statement after Blankenship was sentenced:

"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."
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