Media fights to lift gag order while Blankenship's lawyers ask to move trial

March 3, 2015

A group of media organizations that includes The Associated Press, The Charleston Gazette, The Wall Street Journal have challenged a gag order in the criminal case of Don Blankenship, former Massey Energy CEO, and his role in the Upper Big Branch explosion that killed 29 miners.

David Schulz, representing the media group, told a three-judge panel of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals that some victims’ relatives believe the sweeping gag order also prohibits them from testifying before lawmakers and regulators, The Associated Press reported.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger’s gag order was imposed in January when she said it was needed to protect former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s right to a fair trial.

Blankenship was the head of Massey Energy when the Upper Big Branch Mine exploded in 2010. He is charged with conspiring to violate safety and health standards.

“The public has a right and a need to know that justice is being done fairly,” Schulz said. The panel did not indicate when it would rule.

Along with barring people from talking, the judge strictly limited public disclosure of documents filed in the case. Among the documents that remain sealed is Blankenship’s motion to move the case out of the Southern District of West Virginia.

Blankenship’s lawyer, William W. Taylor III, told the court that the gag order will become unnecessary if the motion to move the trial is granted. Until then, he said, Blankenship supports keeping the order in place even though he didn’t ask for it.

Blankenship’s lawyers said in a court filing that about half of the people in the community where the former Massey Energy CEO faces criminal charges have already concluded that he is guilty, The West Virginia Gazette reported.

Blankenship’s lawyers say their finding — which would still leave about half of the residents undecided and potentially available to serve on a jury — shows the need for U.S. District Judge Berger to move the case to another federal court district outside Southern West Virginia.

Trial is currently scheduled to start on April 20, but Blankenship has asked for another delay.
 

 

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