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Judge questions potential Blankenship jurors

Charleston Gazette-Mail photo by Sam Owens Former Massey Energy Co. CEO Don Blankenship walks out of Charleston’s Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse on Thursday with his lawyers, including James Walls (right), after potential jurors were released for a lunch break during the first day of jury selection for his criminal trial.
Charleston Gazette-Mail photo by Sam Owens
Former Massey Energy Co. CEO Don Blankenship walks out of Charleston’s Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse on Thursday with his lawyers, including James Walls (right), after potential jurors were released for a lunch break during the first day of jury selection for his criminal trial.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Jury selection began Thursday in the criminal trial of Don Blankenship, with members of the public able to watch — but not listen to — the questioning of potential jurors who will decide the former Massey Energy Co. CEO’s fate.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger quizzed prospective jurors for nearly five hours on the initial day of an effort to seat an impartial jury to decide the conspiracy and fraud case prosecutors brought against Blankenship after an investigation following the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

Members of the public, the news media and families of miners killed at Upper Big Branch were barred from the courtroom where the jury selection was actually taking place, and were sequestered instead in another courtroom, equipped with a video feed but with sound that was inaudible for most of the day.

Blankenship, 65, faces charges that he conspired to violate mine safety standards before the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster occurred and, after the explosion, lied to securities regulators and investors about Massey safety policies — saying the company always tried to follow the rules — in an effort to stop stock prices from plummeting amid widespread news reports about problems at the company’s mines.

Unlike a court appearance in Beckley, when U.S. Marshals helped Blankenship come and go from the courthouse without facing news cameras, the defendant walked up the steps of the Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse in Charleston Thursday morning in plain view after exiting a light blue minivan that pulled up outside the building’s main entrance on Virginia Street.

“Yes,” Blankenship said with a smile, when asked if he still maintains that he is innocent…

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