Fifth Circuit Affirms Lower Court Ruling, Granting Ropes & Gray Client New Trial in Deepwater Horizon Case
On June 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the June 12, 2014 decision by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, which granted a new trial for Ropes & Gray client Kurt Mix.
In May 2012, the Department of Justice charged Mr. Mix, a former BP drilling engineer, with two counts of felony obstruction of justice. The indictment accused Mr. Mix of deleting two text message strings and three voicemails from his iPhone in order to obstruct a federal grand jury’s investigation of the Deepwater Horizon incident.
After a two-week trial, a jury acquitted Mr. Mix on one count but returned a guilty verdict on the other. Ropes & Gray thereafter filed a post-trial motion seeking to set aside the jury’s guilty verdict based on the revelation that, during the jury’s deliberations, the jury foreperson told her fellow jurors that she was convinced of Mr. Mix’s guilt because of something she had overheard in the courthouse’s public elevator a few days earlier. Although she did not disclose the content of what she overheard – that Kurt Mix was not the only BP employee being prosecuted, and that other trials were upcoming – the deliberation process was corrupted when she received the extrinsic information and then informed her fellow jurors that she had overheard information that affirmed her vote.
In affirming the District Court’s order granting Mr. Mix a new trial, the Fifth Circuit rejected the government’s argument that the extrinsic information was not prejudicial, holding that: “The District Court did not abuse its discretion when it found that the jury was prejudiced in two separate ways. First, Juror 1 was prejudiced by hearing that other BP employees were being prosecuted. Second, the rest of the jury was prejudiced by the foreperson’s enigmatic statement that she heard outside information that gave her comfort in voting guilty.”
The Fifth Circuit further rejected the government's argument that the evidence it presented against Mr. Mix at trial was sufficiently strong that the jury's guilty verdict could be upheld despite the foreperson's misconduct. The Fifth Circuit catalogued the trial evidence that supported Mr. Mix's defense that the deletion was innocuous and not done with any criminal intent, and relied upon this evidence in rejecting the government's assertions regarding the weight of the evidence.
In response to the Fifth Circuit’s decision, lead counsel for Mr. Mix, Joan McPhee, released the following statement:
“Judge Duval got it right in finding that Kurt Mix is constitutionally entitled to a new trial. We appreciate the care with which the Fifth Circuit reviewed the facts and understood the trial record, and are gratified by its decision. Kurt has consistently maintained his innocence from the start, and he looks forward to having his case heard by an impartial jury.”
Together with Ms. McPhee, business & securities litigation partner Douglas Hallward-Driemeier, government enforcement partners Michael McGovern and Aaron Katz, and government enforcement associate Jonathan Ference-Burke represented Mr. Mix on appeal.