Blankenship is charged with conspiring to break health and safety requirements in hundreds of violations at Upper Big Branch Mine, which exploded in 2010, killing 29 miners.
CEOs are rarely directly prosecuted for company wrongdoings.
With Blankenship, federal prosecutors are highlighting memos and testimony they say show the CEO was intimately involved in how his mines were run, with profit trumping safety. The defense is expected to point the blame at mine regulators.
The four-count indictment accuses Blankenship of having tipped off managers about federal safety inspections ahead of time before the explosion and of having tried to cover up the company’s mismanagement after the explosion.
” ‘I’m not sure anyone can tell you that there’s been a specific case where anyone had gone to the scope or the scale of what Blankenship’s accused of, ‘ said Paul Rakes, a West Virginia University Institute of Technology history professor who researches coal”.
The new priority to go after corporate leaders “was meant to maximize our ability to continue doing that in a broad array of cases”, the official said. If convicted, Blankenship could face 31 years in prison.
After Blankenship’s lawyers complained he could not get a fair trial in Beckly, Va., Judge Irene Berger moved the trial to Charleston, where more than 100 people have been called for jury selection in its US District Court.
How locals in West Virginia are responding to the upcoming trial.
In a March 2014 interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Blankenship denounced the federal investigation and specifically the mine safety agency, saying overregulation had taken safety decisions out of the hands of mining executives.
Blankenship has argued that the explosion at Upper Big Branch was caused by a freak inundation of natural gas. Media, family members of those killed in the Upper Big Branch mine and others were placed in a separate courtroom where they could watch a video stream of the questioning on three television monitors.