Blankenship: Fairness is vital to judicial process

After his 2015 federal court conviction, former West Virginia coal baron Don Blankenship maintained he had been railroaded by prosecutors. It turns out he was right — according to a magistrate judge.

Blankenship headed Massey Energy in 2010, when an explosion at the firm’s Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 people. His 2010 conviction was on a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate mine safety regulations.

After spending a year in jail and paying a $250,000 fine, Blankenship ran for the U.S. Senate, but lost in the 2018 Republican primary election.

He had appealed the conviction, but it was upheld by a federal appeals court. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear another appeal.

But this week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Omar Aboulhosn, in Charleston, recommended Blankenship’s conviction should be vacated. Whether that happens will be up to U.S. District Judge Irene Berger — who presided over the 2010 trial.

Aboulhosn’s decision is troubling, and not just because it came in the Blankenship case. The magistrate concluded Blankenship’s rights were violated because prosecutors withheld from his attorneys certain information their investigation had uncovered.

Had that information been produced, “its tendency would have been favorable” to Blankenship, Aboulhosn wrote.

Prosecutors did not act out of malice toward Blankenship, the magistrate added.

If all of this is true — and, again, Berger will have to rule on that — Blankenship indeed may have been railroaded.

Even prosecuting attorneys are supposed to be acting in the interests of justice, not just out of a desire to win convictions. That means that if evidence helpful to the defendant’s attorneys is uncovered, they ought to be made aware of it.

Whether the defendant is an unpopular coal executive or a John or Jane Doe no one ever heard of, simple fairness dictates he or she get a fair shake in the courts. If Aboulhosn is right, Blankenship did not receive that.