Fifth Circuit halts BP deal decision

Marilyn Tennissen Mar. 13, 2008, 5:00am

It may be a while before a federal judge decides whether to accept or reject a plea agreement from BP Products over a fatal 2005 explosion, as an appeals court has now entered the debate.

BP pleaded guilty to criminal charges that it violated the Clean Air Act when an explosion at the Texas City refinery killed 15 and injured hundreds more. In a plea agreement, BP was ordered to pay a $50 million fine and serve three years probation.

In February, victims and families came before U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal, urging her not to accept the deal. They claimed the agreement process was in violation of a federal victims' rights law and that the fine was too small considering the magnitude of the losses victims sustained.

Rosenthal later ruled that she would not reject the plea deal based on the victims' argument that they were not consulted about the agreement.

Shortly after, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals instructed Rosenthal "to take no further action" on the plea agreement until prosecutors respond to the claims regarding victims' rights.

The prosecutors' response says the government should not be compelled to have discussions with victims on issues related to possible fines in a criminal case.

Revealing all the facts during settlement discussions might hinder the negotiations by increasing publicity which could impair the defendant's constitutional rights if negotiations failed, the government argued.

The government argued the Crime Victims' Rights Act doesn't specify victims need to be heard "in the context of pre-indictment plea agreements," but rather that they be given notice and be allowed to take part in public court proceedings. The government said it complied with those requirements.

They also argued that victims were improperly trying to block the settlement by asking the appeals court to issue a writ of mandamus ordering Rosenthal to reject the deal.

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