On Monday, federal prosecutors announced that they were seeking a maximum sentence for former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who was found guilty of conspiracy in December 2015.
Considering what Blankenship is guilty of doing — breaking safety laws that could have saved the lives of 29 people who died at an explosion in one of his West Virginia mines — you’d think it likely he would spend the rest of his life in prison for the death of those 29 people.
Well, think again.
Despite having the blood of almost 30 people on his hands, Blankenship will only spend at maximum one year in prison.
This is the punishment federal prosecutors are now asking for, and even they think it doesn’t go far enough in taking into account the scale of his crimes.
In his court-filing demanding that Blankenship get the maximum one-year sentence, Assistant US Attorney Steven Ruby said that, “Under any fair assessment, only a sentence of many years in prison could truly reflect the seriousness of [the defendant’s] crime … A year is woefully insufficient … but under the law on the books, it is the best the court can do.”
Don Blankenship kills 29 people and only goes to prison for a year, while the kid down the street sells a few joints and gets locked up for 20 years. Such is life in the US criminal legal system, where the rich and powerful literally get away with murder and the poor and oppressed get the shaft and then some.
This kind of situation is, theoretically at least, what the much-vaunted bipartisan criminal legal reform effort in Congress is meant to stop. It’s claimed to the bridge towards a fairer future. But now the Koch brothers are trying to hijack it.
Part of the reason that the movement to reform the criminal legal system has now stalled in Congress is the fact that Republicans, working on behalf of the Koch network billionaires and corporate America, are using it as cover to make it even harder to punish those charged with white collar crimes … like Don Blankenship.
They want to include, as part of any package of criminal legal reform legislation, language that would change way the feds can use a legal doctrine known as mens rea in white collar cases.
If these Republicans succeed, white collar law-breakers could escape accountability if they simply said that they “didn’t know” they or their business and colleagues were breaking the law.
They can’t do this now — it’s that whole “ignorance of the law is no excuse” thing.
This sounds like a minor bit of legal esoterica, but it’s not.
The power to convict someone of committing a crime — regardless of whether or not they “knew” they were breaking the law when they committed that crime — is a tool widely used by prosecutors. This is especially important in white collar cases involving things like pollution, food safety and financial regulation.
Without mens rea, the government would have a much harder time convicting corporate lawbreakers like Don Blankenship if it couldn’t 100 percent prove that said lawbreakers knew they were breaking the law, and that that lawbreaking would definitely lead to the death of 29 men.
In other words, the Koch brothers’ version of criminal legal reform makes the situation we have now — where the super-rich can literally get away with murder — even worse.
Charles and David Koch have a very personal reason for wanting to gut mens rea.
As Koch Industries’ general counsel Mark Holden told The New York Times recently, “the company’s efforts to pursue revisions in federal criminal law were inspired in part by a criminal case filed 15 years ago against Koch Industries claiming that it covered up releases of hazardous air pollution at a Texas oil refinery. Those charges resulted in a guilty plea by the company and a $20 million penalty.”
Surprise, surprise — the Kochs are just looking out for themselves. And the sad thing is that it could end up sabotaging the entire criminal legal reform effort in Congress.
A bill that’s effectively a “gimme” for polluters and white collar law-breakers might be too much for many Democrats to swallow. Which is a tragedy, because we really do need to change how sentencing laws work in this country. That change, however, shouldn’t come at the expense of one of the important tools the government has to hold corporate lawbreakers accountable for their actions.