Lawyers representing a former BP PLC engineer recently convicted of intentionally destroying evidence about the company’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico may have been contacting jurors in the case unlawfully, a federal judge said on Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. said he is “concerned about the appropriateness” of Kurt Mix’s lawyers interviewing individual jurors “without permission from this court,” after Mix’s conviction in mid-December.
Mix’s attorneys had apparently contacted the jurors after Mix’s conviction, eventually using the information they got from those conversations to file a motion for a new trial. From their conversations with the jurors, Mix’s attorneys — from the law firms Ropes & Gray LLP and Chaffe McCall LLP — are now claiming there was juror misconduct during the trial.
In responding to the new trial motion on Thursday, Judge Duval said that the attorneys should have sought permission from him before interviewing the jurors. He noted that, while he did not specifically tell Mix’s attorneys not to contact the jurors, the attorneys are governed by the court’s local rules — one of which states that “no attorney or party to an action or anyone acting on their behalf may examine or interview any juror” without having filed a motion showing good cause.
“This court has not only a duty to the litigants, but to the jury system as well as the individual jurors,” Judge Duval wrote. “The Court is aware that … it did not specifically state that the attorneys in the case were not permitted to contact them. However, the jurors were specifically instructed to refrain from discussing their deliberations in any manner.”
Mix’s attorneys and the prosecution have been ordered to file briefs by Jan. 24 explaining whether contacting the jurors was legally appropriate. Judge Duval also ordered that attorneys on both sides have no further contact with any juror in the case.
Mix was convicted in December of one count of obstruction of justice for deleting hundreds of text messages with a BP supervisor from his iPhone. Prosecutors said at the time that the conversation had directly pertained to BP’s internal response to the disaster, which is estimated to have spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. One of those text messages had allegedly read “Too much flowrate — — over 15,000,” barrels of oil per day, which was three-times higher than BP’s public estimate of barrels of oil per day at the time.