Defense attorneys for former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship are requesting the trial venue be moved outside the southern district, according to recently unsealed court documents. 

The defense motion itself not available on the court’s website, but the U.S. Attorney’s response to the motion, filed Feb. 27, has now been made public. 

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin likens the pre-trial publicity of the Blankenship case to Skilling vs. United States. 

Skilling was the former CEO of Houston’s Enron Corporation, which collapsed, causing thousands of local residents to lose jobs and savings, Goodwin’s response said. Over 4,000 local newspaper articles and 19,000 local televised news segments highlighted the case. 

“Even if defendant’s claims about his survey of the Beckley Division and his collection of news stories are taken at face value, they show less evidence of pre-trial prejudice than existed in Skilling, where no venue change was required.”

The response also noted that the defense “refuses to share” data files of survey results with the U.S. — “a decision from which the Court may draw its own conclusions about the survey’s reliability.”

Goodwin argued the court should follow the near-universal rule that a change of venue is not justified unless and until “voir dire,” the questioning of prospective jurors, reveals that an impartial jury cannot be empaneled.

He did note that Beckley is less populous than Houston, the Skilling locale, but offered Charleston as an alternative venue, as the Charleston Division’s population is around 516,000. 

And if that is not enough, Goodwin said the court could also add the counties in the Huntington Division to the jury pool, bringing the population to 738,000, or about 40 percent of the state’s overall population. 

“They are also removed from the heart of coal country and from the area most directly affected by the Upper Big Branch explosion. This course would resolve the defendant’s objections while protecting the important public interest in vicinage, that is, trying a case as close as possible to where the charged offenses occurred.”

• • • 

Blankenship was indicted Nov. 14 by a federal grand jury on four counts related to the April 5, 2010, Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 miners. 

Charges include conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards, conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials and making false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and securities fraud.

He pleaded “not guilty” to the charges Nov. 20 and was released on a $5 million cash bond with travel restrictions.

A pre-trial motions hearing was scheduled March 3 in Beckley federal court, but a judge is allowing additional time for both parties to file responses to the motions.

The trial currently is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. April 20.

— E-mail: wholdren@register- and follow on

Twitter @WendyHoldren

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