NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - An engineer charged with obstructing justice in connection with the 2010 BP well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico was found guilty of one count by a federal jury on Wednesday, officials said.
Former BP Plc (BP.L) employee Kurt Mix, 52, had faced two counts of obstruction for deleting hundreds of messages he exchanged with his supervisor and a contractor in the weeks after the spill, but was convicted of only one.
Mix was part of a team that scrambled to plug the Macondo well and figure out how much oil was leaking in what became the worst offshore environmental disaster in U.S. history.
During the two-week trial, government lawyers painted Mix as a loyal member of the drilling team who tried to shield BP from blame by deleting text and voice messages that may have proven BP lied about how much oil was escaping into the Gulf.
Defense attorneys, who do not deny Mix deleted messages, insisted he had no ill intent and that the deletions were largely accidental.
Mix, of Katy, Texas, did not take the stand in his own defense. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000.
Prosecutor Leo Tsao told the jurors that Mix had been warned repeatedly not to delete any information from his company iPhone and had notified him that he might be subpoenaed before a grand jury investigating BP's response to the spill.
By ignoring those warnings Mix displayed "corrupt intent" Tsao said.
"He deleted the messages even though he had been told ... that if he did so, he could be criminally prosecuted," Tsao told the jury.
Mix's lawyer, Michael McGovern, countered that his client was an innocent man who "told the truth to U.S. government scientists all throughout the response effort."
McGovern said it was unreasonable to believe Mix "a drilling engineer with no law enforcement training whatsoever was specifically thinking about the possibility of a grand jury when he deleted messages from his iPhone."
Mix is one of four current or former BP employees charged with crimes connected with the well incident. His is the first case to be tried.
The Macondo well explosion on April 20, 2010, killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and triggered an 87-day oil spill in which millions of gallons of crude flowed into the Gulf.
Reporting By Kathy Finn; editing by Anna Driver, Terry Wade and Leslie Gevirtz