A federal appeals court has ruled that the rights of victims of the 2005 BP explosion in Texas City were violated by Houston federal prosecutors and a federal judge in connection with a plea bargain. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said a 2004 law that gives crime victims a say in the process was violated when the prosecutors got a U.S. District Judge, who was handling miscellaneous courthouse items, to allow a plea bargain to be reached with BP without letting the victims know about the plan.
In October 2007, BP’s North American products division agreed to plead guilty to a felony violation of the federal Clean Air Act, pay the $50 million fine and serve three years of probation for the blast, which killed 15 people and hurt many more. The plea agreement, which is still on the table, must be accepted by a judge to be final and that has not yet happened. Paul Cassell, a professor at the University of Utah College of Law, along with lawyers, David Perry of Corpus Christi, Mark Lanier of Houston and Brent Coon of Beaumont all worked for the victims and asked U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal, the trial judge on the case, to listen to the verdicts relating to the guilty pleas.
The appellate ruling came after the victims asked the Fifth Circuit Court to dissolve the plea agreement since it violated to the Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004. They wanted the legal remedy provided in the act — that BP and prosecutors be forced to start all over – to take into account the views of the injured people and families of the dead. Prosecutors have defended the plea bargain and noted that the $50 million fine was the harshest available under the Clean Air Act. It might be considered harsh, but for the conduct of BP, it isn’t that bad. Lawyers for the victims will ask the entire 5th Circuit Court, not just the three-judge panel, to consider the case. This is an important case since it involves the victims’ rights law, which has not yet been the subject of many appellate cases.
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