NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal jury on Monday started weighing whether a former BP engineer broke the law or harmlessly swiped his finger across a cellular phone when he deleted hundreds of text messages in the aftermath of the company's massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Jurors met for about an hour-and-a-half before asking to go home for the night. They were scheduled to resume deliberations Tuesday morning.
Prosecutors argued that Kurt Mix, 52, of Katy, Texas, was trying to destroy evidence when he deleted two strings of text messages — one with a supervisor and another with a BP contractor.
"It's a crime, and Kurt Mix should be held accountable," Justice Department prosecutor Leo Tsao (SOW) said in his closing arguments before the jury began deliberating.
But a defense lawyer, Michael McGovern, told jurors that the charges against Mix are "unfair and baseless" and the product of investigators' "rank incompetence." He described Mix as a brilliant engineer who worked tirelessly to seal the blown-out well and "doesn't have a corrupt bone in his body."
"You did not hear one bad word about Kurt Mix. Not a single one," he said during his closing arguments. "Not one bad word about Kurt's character. Not one bad word about Kurt's work."
Mix didn't testify at his two-week-long trial on two counts of obstruction of justice. Each count carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Mix was one of four current or former BP employees charged with crimes related to the spill. His case was the first to be tried.
The April 20, 2010, blowout of BP PLC's Macondo well off the coast of Louisiana triggered an explosion that killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and spawned the nation's worst offshore oil spill. Millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf, killing wildlife, polluting marshes and staining beaches while the company scrambled for weeks to seal the well.
Mix was on a team of experts who tried in vain to stop the flow of oil using a technique called "top kill." He had access to internal data about how much crude was flowing from the blown-out well.
On May 26, 2010, the day that top kill began, Mix estimated in a text to a supervisor that more than 630,000 gallons of oil per day were spilling — three times BP's public estimate of 210,000 gallons daily and a rate far greater than what top kill could handle.
That text was in a string of messages that Mix exchanged with his supervisor, Jonathan Sprague, before deleting it in October 2010. Investigators couldn't recover 17 of the messages in the string.