Jurors in Kurt Mix trial still unable to reach verdict

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.

Judge tells them to keep trying

The first criminal trial over the 2010 BP oil spill appeared on the verge of a possible mistrial Tuesday, as federal-court jurors said they were deadlocked over whether former BP engineer Kurt Mix obstructed justice when he deleted a string of text messages and voice mails, allegedly in order to hamper the government’s investigation after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig caught fire and exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Jury deliberations began Monday afternoon and continued all day Tuesday. After weighing the case for more than eight hours, jurors sent U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. a note about 4 p.m. indicating they had been at a standstill since before lunch.

Duval asked U.S. Justice Department prosecutors and Mix’s attorneys how they wanted him to proceed. “I’m interested in hearing what you have to say,” Duval said from the bench. “It’s your case.”

After some discussion, the judge called the jurors back into court and read them a version of the so-called “Allen charge,” a last-resort set of instructions intended to push deadlocked jurors to reach a verdict. “This is an important case,” he told them. “If you should fail to agree on a verdict, the case is left open and may be tried again.”

Jurors considered the case for another hour before asking Duval to send them home for the night. The trial is expected to resume Wednesday.

BP directed Mix to analyze how much oil was gushing into the Gulf after the ill-fated Macondo well blew out on April 20, 2010. He 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, now 52, 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. All but 17 of the deleted text messages were later recovered by forensic experts.

He is charged with two counts of obstruction of justice and faces a potential prison sentence of up to 20 years for each count.

Earlier Tuesday, the jurors asked for clarification on whether to consider the content of the recovered text messages in reaching a verdict. Duval said they could “review the content of the text messages as they are in evidence” in deciding if Mix got rid of the exchanges “knowingly and dishonestly and with the specific intent to subvert or undermine” a potential grand jury investigation.

Mix, who lives in Texas, is the first man tried in connection with the 2010 disaster, which killed 11 men and spilled 4.2 million barrels of heavy crude into the Gulf of Mexico. He is one of four BP employees — three of them low-level workers — charged in connection with the accident, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Prosecutors contend 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 contend the messages were mostly irrelevant exchanges with friends.