The former head of a coal company that ran the West Virginia mine where 29 men were killed in a 2010 explosion told a judge Wednesday that he wants his federal criminal case moved and his trial delayed for a year.
Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is charged with conspiring to violate safety and health standards at the Upper Big Branch Mine. Blankenship’s attorney said at a hearing that his client couldn’t get a fair trial in southern West Virginia because of bad publicity.
Also, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger heard news organizations, including The Associated Press, argue against a gag order in the case.
It prohibits parties or victims from discussing the case with reporters or releasing court documents, though victims’ families have spoken to the media anyway. It also seals court filings from public view.
The AP, The Charleston Gazette, The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio and Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting want the order dropped or modified.
The only action Berger took Wednesday was to move some motion deadlines back, without specifying the new due dates. The trial date is set for Jan. 26.
Blankenship’s attorney, William Taylor, said he hasn’t filed for a venue change yet, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Ruby said he is confident a fair jury could be found in southern West Virginia.
Blankenship also faces charges of lying to federal financial regulators about safety measures in the deadly blast. Last month, Blankenship pleaded not guilty and was released on a $5 million bond. If convicted, he faces up to 31 years in prison.
Blankenship’s attorneys also contended that the upcoming trial date would be impossible, saying they need to take polls, interview people, pull years of newspaper coverage and do other research.
Federal prosecutors disagreed, saying that only a short delay, if any, would be warranted.
Discussing the gag order, attorney Sean McGinley said on behalf of the media organizations that the case has already been widely publicized in the press for years.
The groups have argued that the prohibitions are overly broad and infringe on free-speech rights. They say a jury could still be fair and impartial without the restrictions. They have also argued that the gag order is infringing on their constitutional right to do their job.
Blankenship’s attorneys said they support the gag order, unless the case is moved elsewhere. The government took no stance, but Ruby said government officials will not be talking to the media regardless of Berger’s upcoming gag-order ruling.