Jurors receive cases in WR Grace trial
MISSOULA, Mont. — Cases in the W.R. Grace & Co. environmental crimes trial went to jurors Wednesday after closing arguments in which prosecutors relied heavily on documents and a company lawyer responded that documents “don’t capture the flow of human experience.”
“You have to listen to what people say, and they said it in this courtroom,” defense attorney David Bernick said in highlighting some of the witnesses who have testified since the U.S. District Court trial began Feb. 19.
Maryland-based chemical company Grace and three former executives are accused of conspiring to hide health risks posed by asbestos in vermiculite that Grace mined years ago near Libby, in northwestern Montana. Attorneys for some Libby residents blame tremolite asbestos for about 2,000 cases of illness and about 225 deaths in and around the community.
Grace bought the mine in 1963 and closed it in 1990.
Bernick spoke after Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean walked jurors through a series of Grace memos and other documents presented during the trial. Human memories fade, McLean said, but the information on paper reveals some of what the company knew about asbestos hazards and shows that Grace sought to build a bank of information on which to draw if the company eventually was challenged about asbestos exposure.
“They needed to keep it a secret so they could continue making money as well as avoid liability,” McLean said.
The prosecution’s closing relied on the “same old, same old,” said Bernick, telling jurors that “you’ve probably seen some of these documents seven, eight, nine times.” The government cherry-picked documents to present in court rather than acknowledge its case lacks merit, Bernick said.
Prosecutors “know what the record in this case is” but have chosen not to tell the full story, said Bernick, who added that allegations about what happened in Libby include “junk science.”
McLean opened with an apology for earlier failing to give defense lawyers copies of e-mails relevant in the defense of Robert Bettachi, one of the former executives.
“That was my mistake,” McLean said. “My mistake caused an interruption in this trial.”
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy had told jurors not to consider the testimony of Robert Locke, a key prosecution witness involved in the e-mail communications, when considering the charges against Bettachi. The judge told jurors Wednesday to regard Locke’s testimony cautiously when weighing the cases of other defendants.
Molloy has broadly criticized the prosecution, at one point telling federal attorneys they did not understand the evidence they were presenting. Last week he dismissed charges against two former executives, shrinking the number still on trial to three, but he refused to end the trial on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. Motions to acquit remain pending, and Molloy said Wednesday that he would not rule on them before the jury returns verdicts.
The judge expanded his instructions to the jury after some members of the defense team objected to part of the prosecution’s closure. Closing defense arguments included statements by attorneys for former executives Henry Eschenbach and Jack Wolter, as well as Bettachi.