CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal prosecutors want a former Massey Energy security chief to spend 25 years in jail for lying to investigators and trying to destroy evidence in the probe of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin argued in a court filing that Hughie Elbert Stover's actions played a major role in causing the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 coal miners.
In a seven-page sentencing memorandum filed Tuesday, prosecutors said the miners died "in part" because of a system of inspection warnings Stover helped to coordinate. They said Stover later "acted to sabotage" the largest mine disaster probe in a generation.
"It is difficult to imagine a conviction for obstructing justice and making a false statement whose facts would rival these, with 29 miners dead and the subversion of an investigation of the highest national priority," Goodwin's memorandum said. "For that reason, a sentence that does not at least approach the maximum would not reflect the seriousness of the offense, provide just punishment, or promote respect for the law."
Goodwin noted that, "even the 25-year maximum sentence would represent only 10 1/2 months for each death involved."
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger is scheduled to sentence Stover during a Feb. 29 hearing in Beckley.
Defense attorney Bill Wilmoth urged Berger not to sentence Stover to any jail time or to at least split any sentence so that most of it is spent on home confinement. Wilmoth argued that Stover was innocent, and that crimes he was charged with had nothing to do with the mine disaster.
"The tragedy at UBB in April 2010 will live large in the hearts and minds of West Virginians forever as a terrible event," Wilmoth wrote. "The actions for which Elbert Stover was convicted, however, occurred much later, from August 2010 to January 2011, and were wholly unrelated to the cause of the explosion."In no way should the nature and circumstances of the UBB tragedy be weighed in considering sentence in this case, and they do not support a term of incarceration."
In October, a federal jury convicted Stover of two felonies: making a false statement and obstructing justice. Jurors concluded that Stover lied to investigators and then tried to destroy evidence about Massey's practice of warning underground workers when federal inspectors arrived at Upper Big Branch.
By statute, Stover could face a maximum of 25 years in prison. Federal sentencing guidelines, which judges can follow or ignore, recommend a sentence of between 33 and 41 months.
Prosecutors said that a sentence within those sentencing guidelines would "risk trivializing the impact" of Stover's conduct. They said sentence of between 33 and 41 months "would be the same had he obstructed an investigation into the impersonation of a 4-H club member ... or for transporting water chestnuts across state lines."