5th Cir. Requires New Trial in a Deepwater Horizon Criminal Prosecution


On June 30, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant Kurt Mix, a former BP engineer, a new trial after it was discovered that the jurors had been exposed to extrinsic evidence bearing on the general prosecution of BP employees in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The case is United States of America v. Mix.

Mix was involved in efforts to calculate the amount of oil flowing from the Macondo well, the site of the Deepwater Horizon accident, and developing plans to staunch the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. He was charged with obstruction of justice for deleting text messages between himself and his supervisor related to, the Government alleges, the flow rates. Mix was acquitted on one charge and convicted on the other charge. His counsel, without the permission of the court, contracted the jurors to “obtain feedback about the defense’s failed trial strategy”, and they learned that the forewoman of the jury reported to some of her fellow jurors that she overheard a conversation in a courthouse elevator that other BP employees were being prosecuted in the wake of the spill.

After conducting a hearing, and examining the jurors, the trial court granted Mix’s request for a new trial. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the introduction of this extrinsic evidence into the jury proceedings could have violated the Mix’s right to an impartial jury and his Sixth Amendment right to Confrontation. In response to the Government’s argument that the evidence against Mix was overwhelming anyway, and that this incident could not have affected the jury’s deliberations, the Court of Appeals noted that the evidence presented at trial was not all one-sided, suggesting that the exposure to the information could have tipped the balance.

Additional Source: United States of America v. Kurt E. Mix, Criminal Complaint (Dated Apr. 23, 2012)