American Bar Association
Media Alerts
Media Alerts - United States v. Blankenship - - Fourth Circuit
Decrease font size
Increase font size
February 2, 2017
  United States v. Blankenship - - Fourth Circuit
Coal Company Executive's Conviction Leads to New Directive from the Fourth Circuit

Areas of Law: Criminal Procedure

Issue Presented: Whether the district court committed reversible error in providing a "two-inference" instruction, which instructed the jury that if it "view[ed] the evidence in the case as reasonably permitting either of two conclusions - one of innocence, the other of guilt - the jury should, of course, adopt the conclusion of innocence."

Brief Summary:
In a published opinion arising from a criminal trial held in the Southern District of West Virginia, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the appellant's conviction for conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws and regulations. On appeal, the appellant argued that the district court erred in instructing the jury to choose a verdict of not guilty if the evidence equally permitted either a guilty or not guilty verdict. The Fourth Circuit held that, even though this instruction is legally correct in the instant circumstance of equal inferences, it does not describe how the jury should rule if the inference of guilt is stronger yet still not enough to be beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, although the use of this instruction was harmless in appellant's case and his conviction was affirmed, the Fourth Circuit directed district courts in the circuit to not use the two-inference instruction going forward.

Extended Summary: The appellant was the chairman and chief executive officer of Massey Energy Company at the time of a tragic accident in 2010. The accident occurred at the company's Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, and caused the death of 29 miners. For years preceding the accident, the company had been cited by the Mine Safety & Health Administration ("MSHA") for violations of the Mine Safety & Health Act of 1977, 30 U.S.C. § 801, and its implementing regulations. The MSHA identified 549 separate violations at the Upper Big Branch Mine in the year before the accident. Many of those violations were later determined to be key contributing factors in the accident. The appellant was aware of the violations via daily reports and warnings from other senior officials, but stated that it was "cheaper to break the safety laws and pay the fines than to spend what would be necessary to follow the safety laws." The appellant's actions were consistent with this statement, leading to the death of the miners in the accident.

After a grand jury indictment and a subsequent six-week trial, the appellant was convicted of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws. The district court sentenced appellant to one year of imprisonment and assessed a $250,000 fine, both of which are the maximum allowable under the law for that offense.

On appeal, the appellant disputed four decisions made by the court at trial. As to the first three, the Fourth Circuit considered arguments about the sufficiency of the indictment, the denial of re-cross examination of a witness, and an instruction about the term "willfully" in the applicable statute, but found no error by the district court in any of those decisions. The appellant also challenged the district court's use of the "two-inference" instruction as reversible error.

That instruction told the jury that, if it "view[ed] the evidence in the case as reasonably permitting either of two conclusions - one of innocence, the other of guilt - the jury should, of course, adopt the conclusion of innocence." The Fourth Circuit reviewed the issue de novo to determine if the instruction "accurately and fairly state[s] the controlling law." United States v. Jefferson, 674 F.3d 332, 351 (4th Cir. 2012). The Fourth Circuit had never ruled on this particular instruction before, but noted that other federal circuits had. The Second Circuit, in United States v. Khan, 821 F.2d 90, 93 (2d. Cir. 1987), ruled that this instruction was technically correct as a matter of law, but implied that "a preponderance of the evidence standard is relevant, when it is not." Furthermore, the Second Circuit also held that this instruction "says nothing on how to decide when the inference of guilt is stronger than the inference of innocence but no[t] strong enough to be beyond a reasonable doubt."

The Fourth Circuit agreed with this interpretation and therefore "direct[ed] our district courts not to use the two-inference instruction going forward." However, despite this new directive, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court's decision was not reversible error because, when viewed as a whole with the several dozen other instructions on reasonable doubt provided by the district court, the government's burden was stated correctly. Therefore, with no reversible error, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the appellant's convictions.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Chief Judge Gregory, Judge Wynn, and Senior Judge Davis

Argument Date: 10/26/2016

Date of Issued Opinion: 01/19/2017

Docket Number: No. 16-4193

Decided:
Affirmed by published opinion

Case Alert Author: Patrick J.L. Dillon, University of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: William Woodruff Taylor, III, ZUCKERMAN SPAEDER LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Steven Robert Ruby, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Michael R. Smith, Eric R. Delinsky, ZUCKERMAN SPAEDER LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Carol A. Casto, United States Attorney, R. Gregory McVey, Gabriele Wohl, Assistant United States Attorneys, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee. Christopher A. Brumley, Jeffrey M. Wakefield, Nathaniel K. Tawney, Wesley P. Page, Bradley J. Schmalzer, FLAHERTY SENSABAUGH BONASSO PLLC, Charleston, West Virginia, for Amici Curiae.

Author of Opinion: Judge Wynn

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

Edited: 02/02/2017 at 09:30 AM by Renee Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 02/02/2017 08:11 AM     4th Circuit  

FuseTalk Enterprise Edition - © 1999-2018 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Discussion Board Usage Agreement

Back to Top