March 3, 2009 in City

Witnesses waive right to observe Grace trial

As victims of asbestos exposure, they’re allowed by law to attend
Len Iwanski Associated Press
 

HELENA – Government witnesses who are victims of asbestos exposure have waived their right to observe the W.R. Grace & Co. environmental crimes trial in Missoula.

On Friday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals instructed U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy to hold further proceedings to determine whether the victims’ testimony would be affected by observing the trial.

Molloy then signed an order suspending the proceedings and said federal prosecutors must call each of the 26 remaining victim-witnesses who were previously barred from attending. Molloy said the hearing would be closed to the public and jurors so that he could make “particularized findings” about each witness as required by the appellate court.

Prosecutors made contact with the 26 remaining witnesses over the weekend, and on Sunday notified Molloy that none of them would exercise their rights under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.

“Accordingly, there is no need for a hearing on Monday morning to make particularized findings with respect to any of the government’s witnesses,” the government said in a written notice to the District Court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean addressed the court on that point Monday, with the jury absent. Molloy said the trial would resume this morning.

After the cross-examination of government witness Paul Peronard is completed, the government intends to call two Libby asbestos victims, Melvin and Lerah Parker, whose lawyer successfully appealed Molloy’s Feb. 13 ruling barring witnesses who are asbestos exposure victims from observing the trial.

“Counsel for the Parkers has indicated the potential of further delays in the trial occasioned by additional motions and briefing before this court and the Court of Appeals is a significant factor in his clients’ decision” to waive their rights, the federal government said in a weekend court filing.

Grace and five former company officials are charged with a federal conspiracy involving Clean Air Act violations and obstruction of justice. The charges relate to whether the company and its top employees knew they were endangering the community of Libby by mining asbestos-laced vermiculite and whether they did so in violation of federal law.

Lawyers for Libby residents contend the contamination has killed some 225 people and sickened about 2,000 in the area.

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