Jury begins considering case 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.

Attorney: Charges based on ‘guesswork’

Defense attorneys for former BP engineer Kurt Mix told a jury Monday that his federal prosecution on charges of obstructing justice was unnecessary and largely based on guesswork.

“It is grotesque, and it is shameful, when prosecutors and FBI agents refuse to do their homework and instead ask a jury like you to guess your way to a guilty verdict,” defense attorney Michael McGovern said during closing arguments in New Orleans federal court. “It is even more shameful and grotesque when the government guesses wrong and leaves an innocent man the job of putting things right.”

Jurors were given the case Monday afternoon and deliberated for about 90 minutes before recessing for the night. They will resume deliberating Tuesday.

Mix, 52, who lives in Texas, is the first man tried in connection with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Brought in by BP after its Macondo well blew out in April 2010 to analyze how much oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, Mix had no role in the explosion aboard the drilling rig or in the missteps by the British oil giant and its partners in the drilling project that led to the accident.

Days after the explosion aboard the drilling rig, Mix determined oil was flowing at a rate of from 64,000 to 110,000 barrels a 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 was indicted in May 2012, accused of trying to hamper government investigators by deleting hundreds of messages that he exchanged with a BP supervisor, Jonathan Sprague, and a BP contractor named Wilson Arabie.

There has been no question throughout the two-week trial about whether Mix got rid of messages from his work phone despite notices from BP to preserve all his communications.

Prosecutors from the U.S. Justice Department argued that Mix deliberately deleted the messages to stall the government’s investigation into whether BP executives actually knew how much oil was spewing from the well, and when exactly they knew it. His defense attorneys contended the messages were mostly irrelevant exchanges with friends.

No matter, prosecutors replied: Regardless of the contents, Mix should not have deleted the messages, but he did anyway and therefore should go to jail.

“Kurt Mix made the choice to delete his flow-rate text messages, even after he had been told, over and over and over again,” not to do so, prosecutor Leo Tsao said during closing arguments.

Tsao added: “When a person destroys and deletes evidence to keep it from the grand jury, that is a crime. It is called obstruction of justice.”

All but 17 of the deleted text messages were later recovered by forensic experts. Kelly Bryson, an FBI special agent, testified she did not present the recovered messages when she testified to a grand jury last year considering criminal charges in the wake of the well blowout.

Prosecutors point to a string of messages exchanged as workers readied a so-called “top kill” procedure, which involved pumping heavy drilling mud into the well to try to kill the flow of oil. The effort failed, largely because too much oil was gushing from the well, despite the low public estimates BP was making.

“The defendant made a choice to destroy these materials, to keep them from the grand jury. That’s what this case has proved,” Tsao told jurors.

But defense attorneys said Mix took pains to back up his other documents related to the spill response. They said he accidentally deleted a string of hundreds of messages from his phone with a single swipe of his finger across the screen, and that he had little incentive to shield the information from a grand jury.

McGovern described his client as “a person of uncommon decency,” “a brilliant engineer” who “worked himself sick to stop the flow of oil from the Macondo well.”

He said the government’s case relied on mere conjecture that Mix’s deleted messages might have aided federal investigators, or that he deliberately deleted the messages to hamper the investigators.

McGovern said the case was the result of the “investigative incompetence” of the federal government’s prosecution of the companies responsible for the spill, “and their stubborn unwillingness to back down in the face of overwhelming evidence that they were wrong.”

Tsao urged jurors not to buy into that vision. “Kurt Mix knew what he was doing, and the evidence proves that he did it on purpose,” he said.

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 blowout, just four BP employees have been charged. Three of them, including Mix, were low-level workers.