In a Montana courtroom earlier today, a jury returned a “not guilty” verdict in the government’s case against W.R. Grace and three of its executives. It’s widely known that W.R. Grace’s actions contaminated the entire town of Libby, Montana with asbestos, and that hundreds of Libby residents have died or become seriously ill from asbestos-related diseases. There’s plenty of documentation showing that W.R. Grace knew about the dangers their operations posed to residents but concealed that information. So how could they be found not guilty?

From what I’ve been reading on Andrew Schneider’s blog, it sounds like the trial might’ve gone very differently with a different judge. It also appears that the specific charges in the case might also be an issue. Here’s an explanation from Tristan Scott and Rob Chaney of the Missoulian:

Grace and three former employees – Robert Bettacchi, Jack Wolter and Henry Eschenbach – were 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 ore, and whether they did so in violation of federal law.
The jury of six men and six women had the difficult task of determining whether the evidence proves that Grace’s alleged criminal conduct occurred within an applicable time frame. For example, the criminal provision to the Clean Air Act, which charges knowing endangerment, wasn’t enacted until 1990, the same year the Libby mine ceased operations.

I can see reasons why this trial turned out the way it did (and I’m sure there are plenty more reasons that will be discussed in the weeks ahead). Still, it’s disturbing that a company can do something so utterly, horribly wrong and destructive and still receive a “not guilty” verdict.