NEW ORLEANS -- The trial of Kurt Mix, the low-level BP engineer charged with deleting text messages and obstructing the government’s oil spill investigation, started with jury selection Monday.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval said the trial should take about three weeks.
The Mix case has involved several strange twists, starting two years after the disastrous BP oil spill, when federal agents arrested Mix and made him the first individual charged with a crime in their massive investigation.
Legal analysts were shocked to see the government make such a high-profile example of such a low-level engineer who was only brought in after-the-fact, to estimate how much oil was already spewing from the well -- rather than anyone who may have played a role in causing the explosion that killed 11 rig workers and set off the nation’s worst offshore oil spill.
The question of how much oil was flowing out of BP’s busted deep sea well is certainly an important one. Billions of dollars in civil fines depend on how much oil went into the Gulf waters, and BP has already pleaded guilty criminally to lying about how much oil was coming out during the first month or so of the spill.
But Mix has actually argued that it was evidence he willingly turned over to federal investigators that helped the government build its case against BP and a corporate vice president who was later charged with obstruction.
Mix went so far as to release some of the messages he deleted to argue that they were completely innocuous.
Mix offered as evidence the complete recovered string of more than 100 text messages between himself and a BP contractor hired to help analyze the flow of oil from BP's sub-sea Macondo well. They discuss trips to California, borrowing each other's vehicles, setting up lunches and the results of a pet's surgery.
What is said about the flow of oil seems to be nothing more than guesses and broad ranges.
“What Kurt Mix believed is not probative of, and probably not material to, the government’s investigation,” said Blaine LeCesne, a professor at Loyola Law School who has been following the case closely.
But another string of texts between Mix and a BP supervisor has not been released, and those messages allegedly contain the evidence that would show he was knowingly obstructing justice.
According to a federal agent’s affidavit, those messages contain more details about the flow of oil out of the busted Macondo well, as do some email messages between Mix and the supervisor and between Mix and the contractor.
The government alleges those messages prove that BP officials knew early on that the well was likely spewing tens of thousands of barrels of oil each day, even while they were telling the government, the public and BP's investors that the well was only releasing about 5,000 barrels a day.
A federal agent testified that one text by Mix to his supervisor on May 26, 2010, about a month after the spill began, showed that he knew more oil was flowing than could be contained in BP’s "top kill” procedure, an effort to close the well in. But for three more days, the company continued to assure everyone publicly that the top kill had a good chance to work.
BP finally had to admit the top kill was a failure for the exact reason Mix had allegedly warned about in the text – too much oil coming out at once.
“Was it poor judgment for him to delete those messages? Probably so,” LeCesne said. “I am sure he regretted it. But does it rise to the level of an intent to obstruct or mislead a federal investigation? From the evidence we’ve seen thus far -- and we should withhold final opinion till we’ve seen all of the evidence -- but what we’ve seen thus far is awfully thin.”
The case started off with what seemed like outsized fireworks – with the feds handcuffing Mix and alleging he was a flight risk. Then Mix complained that evidence that would exonerate him was being unfairly kept under wraps.
And it has kept getting stranger leading right up to the trial. For example, last month Mix listed the contractor with whom he exchanged texts as a potential witness in his defense, but the feds allegedly offered the unnamed man immunity to testify for them instead.
Regardless of how important or inconsequential Mix proves to be, the evidence that comes out at his trial could have a larger impact on the rest of the BP case. Gregg Walz, an engineering supervisor who was a part of the decision-making process leading up to the disaster, and Jonathan Sprague, another manager who got an email that appeared to be hiding information about the true spill rate, are both on the witness list.
And lawyers for Bob Kaluza, the rig supervisor charged with manslaughter for the decisions he made right before the rig exploded, were in the courtroom Monday too, observing as they prepare their own client’s defense.