BECKLEY, W.Va. – A federal jury began deliberating Wednesday in the first criminal trial arising from the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in decades, after being offered dueling portraits of the former security chief at the doomed West Virginia mine.
Two felony charges allege that Hughie Elbert Stover sought to impede the investigations that followed the April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine. The 60-year-old headed security there during and after the blast that killed 29 miners and injured two more.
Prosecutors told jurors during closing arguments Wednesday that Stover misled investigators following the disaster and then sought to throw out thousands of security-related records, perhaps to protect himself.
"There's too much at stake here," Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Ellis argued, while urging the eight men and four women on the jury to "send a message that this investigation ought to be allowed to go forward."
Stover's defense portrayed the former Marine and law enforcement officer as a victim of the government's zeal to blame someone for the deadly explosion.
"You wanted justice, and this is who they brought you," defense lawyer William Wilmoth said during his closing argument in the trial that began Monday.
More than four hours into deliberations, jurors asked if they could get a transcript of the testimony from the employee who dumped the documents so they could clarify dates and times, but the judge told them they had to rely on their memory. Meanwhile, more than a dozen family members, friends and former colleagues waited at the courthouse with Stover. They refused to talk to reporters.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Blaire Malkin had earlier reminded jurors of testimony from others at the Raleigh County underground mine. These witnesses alleged that Stover instructed mine guards to send out alerts by radio whenever inspectors entered the property. Such a practice is illegal. One of the criminal charges alleges Stover denied in a November 2010 interview with investigators that there were any advance warnings at the mine.
"This so-called by-the-book guy had his own playbook and terminology," Malkin said.
The other count alleges that Stover sought to destroy the documents the following January, by ordering a subordinate to bag and then throw them into an on-site trash compactor. Ellis suggested to jurors Wednesday that those records would prove that Stover had lied about inspection tip-offs. The attempted disposal also violated repeated warning from the mine's then-owner, Massey Energy, to keep all records while the disaster remained under investigation. Massey officials told investigators of the trashed documents, which were recovered.
Wilmoth attributed Stover's November statements to confusion over evolving policies at the mine, run by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co. As for the document disposal, Stover had called that the "stupidest, worst mistake" of his life when he testified Tuesday in his defense.
Questioning criminal intent, Wilmoth said Stover could have burned, shredded or otherwise destroyed the records himself, instead of delegating the task of throwing them out to a subordinate during daylight hours and in front of a security camera. Prosecutors said the documents were dumped around 6 a.m., and after being placed in trash bags. Hauling them out in their cardboard storage boxes would have drawn notice, as would Stover performing the deed himself, prosecutors argued.
In urging jurors to acquit, Wilmoth argued that Stover's actions amounted to innocent mistakes, citing how several witnesses had described him as by-the-book and honest. Rather than targeting mine executives or engineers who may be at fault for the deadly blast, prosecutors have seized on Stover in a game of "government gotcha," Wilmoth told the jury.
"We're no closer to finding the real villain or villains behind this explosion," said Wilmoth, a former U.S. attorney. "Instead, this is what they brought you."
But prosecutors said the trial's testimony, including Stover's, showed that he ignored the law and his superior's own directives. Stover proved willing to jeopardize a crucial probe to save himself, Ellis told the jury.
The state and federal probes continue.
On Tuesday, the United Mine Workers union criticized government oversight while slamming Massey in a report on the explosion. Labeling the disaster as "industrial homicide," the findings urge criminal charges against a number of then-executives at Massey. Alpha Natural Resources of Abingdon, Va., acquired the Richmond-based Massey in June through a $7.1 billion takeover deal.
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