Jury selection begins in trial of former BP engineer

Associated Press file photo by Pat Sullivan -- Former BP engineer Kurt Mix asked a federal judge to grant him a new trial, or acquit him on obstruction-of-justice charges in connection with his role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. Show caption
Associated Press file photo by Pat Sullivan -- Former BP engineer Kurt Mix asked a federal judge to grant him a new trial, or acquit him on obstruction-of-justice charges in connection with his role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.

Mix accused of deleting evidence in wake of explosion

Attorneys and a federal judge began questioning prospective jurors Monday in the trial of a former BP engineer accused of trying to stymie government investigators by deleting text messages and voice mails in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Prosecutors charge that Kurt Mix got rid of the messages in order to stall the government’s probe into whether executives of the British oil giant knew how much oil was spewing from the runaway Macondo well, and when they knew it.

Mix, who was indicted in May 2012, is the first criminal defendant to be tried in connection with the April 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Eleven workers were killed when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig caught fire and exploded about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. For 87 days, millions of gallons of heavy crude poured into the Gulf, into wetlands and onto Gulf Coast beaches.

Mix, who lives in Texas, was brought in by BP after the well blew out in order to analyze how much oil was gushing into the Gulf. He had no part in the explosion aboard the rig or in the missteps by BP and its partners in the Macondo project that led to the accident.

Days after the explosion, Mix determined that oil was flowing at a rate of about 64,000 to 110,000 barrels each day. At the time, BP officials were telling federal investigators and the public that only 5,000 barrels of oil were being released daily.

Mix faces two counts of obstruction of justice and a potential prison sentence of up to 20 years for deleting two strings of text messages: 200 messages that he exchanged with a BP supervisor, and another 100 messages with a contractor. He also deleted 350 voice messages on his cell phone, including 40 from his supervisor and 15 from the contractor, prosecutors contend.

The trial is expected to last three weeks, said U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr., who is presiding over the case.

Duval spent much of Monday afternoon interviewing potential jurors individually at the bench, alongside Department of Justice prosecutors and Mix’s attorneys. The group finished talking to about 30 potential jurors before breaking for the day just after 5 p.m.

Earlier in the day, Duval asked the pool of more than 100 prospective jurors whether they were familiar with anyone else in the crowd, or had any potential conflicts with the attorneys trying the case. A few spoke up about personal connections with others in the jury pool, including two men who once dated the same woman.

“We didn’t do this as quickly as I had hoped, and you can put that on the judge,” Duval told the remaining jurors just after 5 p.m.

Jury selection is slated to continue Tuesday.

For Mix’s defense team, a challenge will be selecting a jury that is able to separate the post-spill actions of a rank-and-file engineer from widely reported accusations that BP’s corporate negligence led to the deadly catastrophe.

BP pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to the disaster earlier this year, admitting to 11 counts of felony manslaughter, obstruction of Congress and a series of environmental crimes. It agreed to pay a $4 billion fine. More than three years after the Macondo blowout, however, just four of its employees have been charged. Three of them are low-level workers, facing the potential of decades in prison.

Prosecutors are expected to try to show that Mix deleted the messages to hamper the government’s investigation. His attorneys will likely argue he is merely an easy target to appease a public cry for corporate accountability after the worst environmental disaster in the nation’s history.