Cassell Argues Against Proposed Plea Agreement in Victims' Rights Settlement

February 5, 2008 — Paul Cassell, a professor of law at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, appeared in federal district court on Monday in Houston, Texas, to argue that a federal judge should reject the proposed plea bargain in the case of United States v. BP North America.  Cassell represents several of the victims of the disaster on a pro bono basis.

The case arises from BP North America’s agreement to plead guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Air Act for causing the explosion of its oil refinery in Texas City, Texas, in March 2005.  That explosion killed 15 workers, and seriously injured more than 170.

During a six-hour court hearing yesterday, Cassell and attorneys for BP Products and the government argued over the appropriateness of the proposed plea.  Cassell argued that the proposed $50 million fine was “unduly” lenient and recommended a fine “in excess of one billion dollars.”  He also argued that the plea agreement failed to take adequate safety measures, citing the death three weeks ago of William Gracia, a worker at the Texas City refinery.  Gracia’s widow testified earlier in the hearing that her husband died because of BP’s failure to implement promised safety reforms.

Cassell also argued that government attorneys had violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by obtaining an ex parte order permitting them to dispense with victims’ rights.  Cassell said that the Act did not allow prosecutors to waive victims’ rights in this fashion, calling the action “unprecedented.”  Government attorneys responded that they need to take this step to reach a fair plea bargain without being subjected to public pressure.

Judge Rosenthal requested further briefing from Cassell and the parties’ attorneys and took the matter under advisement for at least two weeks.

To listen to a National Public Radio story about the plea, click here: