Jurors in the W.R. Grace & Company criminal trial returned a not guilty verdict on all counts exonerating former executives while frustrating prosecutors and local residents.
The 11-week trial was full of tension, scandals and dismissals which culminated in Friday’s announcement following less than a day of deliberations.
The company and three former executives had been charged with knowingly exposing thousands of Libby residents and former employees to tremolite asbestos from a contaminated vermiculite mine that the company operated from 1963 to 1990.
Asbestos exposure from the mine has caused hundreds of deaths and illnesses while the resulting lawsuits have forced the company to operate under bankruptcy protection since 2001.
The roots of the trial began with a series of reports in late 1999 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the effects of asbestos contamination in Libby, MT. The EPA soon launched an investigation and in 2002 the entire town would be listed as a Superfund site.
In February 2005 the company and seven former executives were indicted on charges of conspiracy, knowing endangerment, wire fraud and obstruction of justice. Four years later after legal wrangling that eventually reached the Supreme Court, jury selection finally began in the historical case. In the mean time, one defendant died and the government agreed to try former legal counsel Mario Favorito separately.
During the trial two executives were dismissed at the prosecution’s request after they admitted they did not have enough evidence to continue and a star witness for the prosecution, former VP of construction Robert Locke, came under fire for contradicting himself on the stand.
The jury began deliberating Thursday after receiving nearly 50 instructions and additional legal definitions from Judge Donald Molloy. Molloy came under fire both before and during the trial for rulings that many felt limited the government’s case.
Following the verdict, W.R. Grace & Co. released a statement expressing relief and arguing that the company and its management had always worked to maintain compliance with historical standards. Had the company been found guilty, it could have faced fines of up to $280 million.
The Department of Justice issued a small statement that did not specify whether they will appeal the decision and did not offer any additional comments on the case due to the pending criminal trial against the last executive.