Outside the courtroom: Relief and disappointment
After a three-month trial, jurors deliberated for just one full day before acquitting W.R. Grace Co. and three of its executives Friday of all criminal charges.
The company and executives were accused of knowingly exposing residents and mine workers to toxic asbestos, a byproduct of the company’s vermiculite mine in Libby, Mont.
In closing the trial, Judge Donald Molloy thanked the jurors for their service, and said that at 35 days the trial was the longest he has overseen.
“I want to thank the jury,” Molloy said. “This is truly a reflection of how we are supposed to govern ourselves – it is up to the people.”
Federal studies blame asbestos from the mine operations for Libby’s high rates of asbestosis and lung cancer. Deaths in Libby from asbestosis have been found to be 40 to 80 times higher than expected and deaths from lung cancer 20 to 30 percent higher.
Acknowledging the town’s troubled past, attorneys for the defense described for the jury a company that tried to improve conditions in Libby once it became aware a danger existed. The government, according to David Bernick, lead attorney for W.R. Grace, pursued a case based on politics and emotions rather than law.
“The jury saw through the haze of 10 years of politics and did the right thing” Bernick said.
The verdict stunned many with a personal interest in the case.
“This is really disappointing,” said Danielle Bundrock, a senior from Libby attending the University of Montana. Bundrock said her step-grandfather died of asbestos related disease this past Easter. Thirteen other members of her family are also afflicted, she said.
“It would have been a lot better if I had heard it went the other way,” she said. “Someone has to be to blame for all the hurt that has happened to the people of Libby.”
Frustration, and an intact gag order
Rick Bass, a writer whose work focused on the Libby region, said as he left the courtroom that the verdict has profound implications for the way industry is held accountable in Montana.
“It’s not good news for Libby. I worry it will have a ripple effect statewide for corporations working in Montana,” Bass said. “Same thing happened in Butte. They cut the top off a mountain and left a mess behind … I worry they’ll breathe a sigh of relief.”
A woman who came to court to see the verdict of a trial she’d watched unfold in the papers said simply, “I’m pissed,” as she stood to leave. She declined to give her name.
Attorneys for the prosecution, Kris McLean and Kevin Cassidy, walked the quick two blocks from the federal courthouse to their office. McLean said they’d like to comment on the verdict but couldn’t.
The U.S. Attorneys Office released a statement from Billings: “The jury has spoken, and we thank them for their service. We are refraining from further comment at this juncture because one individual awaits trial in conjunction with this case.”
A gag order in place since 2005 will remain in place for McLean and Cassidy, until the trial of defendant Mario Favorito, which is scheduled for September, according to Jessica Fehr, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorneys Office in Billings.
But McLean’s supporters gave some indication of the prosecution’s immediate plans:
“All in all, I think it was a good magic show by the defense,” said Tyson McLean, 23, McLean’s oldest son.
“It’s time to mellow out for a while, do some fishing with dad.”
Defendants’ quiet relief
Defendants Henry Eschenbach and Jack Wolter left the courtroom with their supporters, calm, quiet and relieved.
“I‘m just elated. I’m elated that my husband has been exonerated and I’ll say no more,” Doris Eschenbach said.
“For me, it’s been tough,” Henry Eschenbach said. “But it’s been far tougher for my wife, my three daughters and my five grandchildren. I’ve always thought throughout this case, ‘I don’t want to embarrass my grandchildren.”
Dozens of attorneys and paralegals for the defendants formed a receiving line of sorts as the lead attorneys and defendants exited the courtroom.
Carolyn Kubota, Thomas Frongillo, David Krakoff, as well as Bernick, passed through the line, exchanging hugs, handshakes and high fives with the lawyers and staff who have supported their effort for the past three months.
Kubota, who represented Wolter, a former Grace vice president, gave way to tears outside the courtroom.
“It would not be right to say we expected it, but we hoped for it,” Kubota said. “Jack is one of the most honorable men I’ve ever met. An experience like this leaves scars forever. It’s good to have closure and to have his name cleared.”
“It’s one of those things that gives you goose bumps,” she said.
Thomas Frongillo, who often served as supporting actor to Bernick’s lead, said he wasn’t surprised at the verdict. “I expected it,” he said. Frongillo represented former Grace senior vice president Robert Bettacchi.
“I don’t believe a crime was committed,” Frongillo said. “We felt they overstated some of the evidence in this case.”
Outside the courthouse, Eschenbach’s attorney David Krakoff, relayed the news on his cell phone: “We won! Unbelievable. Unbelievable. What a feeling. They’ve been through hell … Total vindication.”
By the Grace Case Project reporters