Phone call tapes allowed in ex-Massey CEO white collar crime case

The rulebook governing whether a piece of evidence should be admitted into a criminal trial is long and complex. Judges are supposed to follow those rules closely, but ultimately it often comes down to a judgment call. These decisions can dramatically affect the defendant’s chances of getting a fair trial, if the judge makes a mistake or fails to follow the rules.

A decision by the federal judge presiding over a high-profile white-collar case in West Virginia might considerably influence the jury’s eventual ruling. The judge ruled that jurors can hear recorded phone calls made by the defendant, former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, in which he discusses his desire for a raise.

Blankenship is on trial for three felonies related to a horrific 2010 disaster at Upper Big Branch coal mine, in which 29 workers were killed. Prosecutors contend that Massey failed to follow federal safety rules under Blankenship’s watch, and are trying to hold him personally responsible.

To this end, the prosecution wished to play for the jury some recordings of Blankenship on the phone discussing his salary, and his desire for his next raise to be in cash instead of stock options. They contend that this shows that Blankenship was more concerned with profits and production at the mine than miner safety.

Blankenship’s defense team filed motions, both before and during trial, to keep the recordings out of the case. But the judge agreed to exclude just three of the nearly two dozen recordings.

It is not clear from an article in the Charleston Gazette-Mail what the defense used as an argument. One possible reason to throw out evidence is that it is not relevant to the charges being considered.

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