Kurt Mix, a former BP drilling engineer charged with destroying evidence about the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, has won court permission to give prosecutors confidential company documents that his lawyer argued could clear him.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval ruled on Wednesday that Mix could submit to the Justice Department information that BP claimed was confidential under attorney-client privilege. Duval did not rule on whether the information will be admissible at trial.
And the judge ordered the government not to use the evidence for any purpose other than determining how it wants to proceed with Mix’s case, according to the order, making it uncertain how the material may play into the federal government’s civil and criminal investigations into the Gulf disaster.
Mix — the only person so far to face criminal charges related to the deadly oil spill — is accused of obstructing justice by deleting more than 200 text messages from his iPhone in the weeks following the April 20, 2010 blowout of BP’s Macondo well.
The texts included a message sent on May 26, 2010, in which he speculated that an attempt to plug the Macondo in an operation called a top kill would not work because of the amount of oil gushing from the well a mile beneath the Gulf surface, according to a criminal complaint filed in April.
David Uhlmann, a former head of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section who now teaches law at the University of Michigan and is following the Macondo litigation, said the judge “struck a reasonable balance between the defendant’s right to present a defense and BP’s attorney-client privilege claims.”
“Without knowing more about the content of the documents in question,” he added, “it is impossible to know whether disclosure will persuade the government to proceed differently with regard to the charges against Mr. Mix.”
That uncertainty about the significance of the documents underscores another point, Uhlmann said. “It is time for the government to move beyond questions about iPhone messages and on to the real matter at hand,” he said, “which is determining who is criminally responsible for the worst accidental oil spill in history.”