Ex-BP engineer's misdemeanor plea a far cry from original obstruction charges
NEW ORLEANS —In a case related to the 2010 BP oil spill, former engineer Kurt Mix was convicted of a single misdemeanor violation earlier this month for deleting text messages without the company's permission, a charge that carries no jail time and no fine.
The final outcome of the complicated legal battle was a drastic difference from Mix’s overturned obstruction of justice charge, under which he faced 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
Mix’s attorney, Joan McPhee of Ropes & Gray LLC, recently told the Louisiana Record that the deleted texts were “entirely personal in nature.”
“[They included] mentions of yoga and sick pets – and did not include anything whatsoever about flow rate or anything important about any other aspect of the oil spill,” McPhee said.
Mix’s original charge was overturned in December 2013, when U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval ruled that the original jury was “tainted.”
After a two-day deadlock, the jury voted to convict Mix for deleting text messages prosecutors said were related to the well blowout following the BP oil spill. The decision came just two hours after the panel’s forewoman relayed a conversation she had overheard in an elevator regarding the indictments of other BP employees – the use of outside evidence is expressly prohibited in jury trials.
Shortly afterward, the U.S. government appealed Duval’s decision to overturn the conviction, leading up to Mix’s conviction on Nov. 6 of a much lesser charge that, notably, the original jury found Mix not guilty of in 2013.
“The resolution of this case with a single wrist-slap misdemeanor plea -- after the Department of Justice spent four years and millions of taxpayer dollars pursuing serious felony obstruction of justice charges against Mr. Mix -- confirms that Judge Duval and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals got it right in holding that the jury's earlier guilty verdict was corrupted by its misconduct during deliberations,” McPhee said.
Mix’s defense team maintained his only fault was misunderstanding smartphone technology and accidentally deleting the string of texts. Of the 331 deleted text messages, investigators were able to retrieve 314 – however, according to the defense, the prosecution declined to show the jury the messages they have retrieved.
“His case is a vivid example of what prosecutors should not do, which is conduct their investigation and assess the facts starting from a presumption of guilt,” McPhee said. “The prosecution narrative was based on demonstrably flawed motive theory, and … the grand jury was unable to exercise independent judgment regarding the charges because the prosecutor declined to show the grand jury the deleted text messages.”
Additionally, after the spill, Mix handed over more than 10,000 documents that revealed flow rate estimates later used against BP.
“Friday's resolution affirms what Mr. Mix has always maintained: he did not delete text messages to obstruct justice,” McPhee said. “No one should be subjected to the legal nightmare that Kurt Mix faced.”