A judge in Sierra County Superior Court Thursday dropped manslaughter charges against the Original Sixteen to One Mine Inc., the gold mine company's president and a manager in connection with a miner's death two years ago.
The hearing was in Downieville before visiting Judge Stanley Young Jr.
Mark Fussell, 36, was killed Nov. 6, 2000, when he his head hit a protruding ore chute, breaking his neck.
Michael M. Miller, 60, the Alleghany's mine's president and chief executive officer, Jonathan T. Farrell, 33, the mine's manager, and the gold mine company were charged last fall with criminal involuntary manslaughter and a willful violation of an occupational safety and health standard causing death.
Thomas Crary, an attorney for the mine, told Judge Young that the grand jury was never told that a state inspector had not seen a hazard when he visited the mine a week before the accident.
Jean Patterson, a state investigator with the state Occupational Health and Safety Administration, reported the information, but prosecutors never informed the grand jury of that exculpatory evidence, Crary said. The accident occurred in an area the miners had recently reopened, he also said.
"None of that was brought to the grand jury," said the Colfax-based attorney. The proceedings, he said, were tainted and not legal.
Lawrence Allen, Sierra County district attorney, argued that Patterson had never been at the mine. Patterson's report, he argued, was all hearsay and not admissible at a grand jury hearing.
(Miller did not have an attorney; Farrell's public defender, J. Lon Cooper of Nevada City, spoke by speakerphone.)
When Young returned the decision to dismiss the charges, a dozen friends, miners, and relatives present in the courtroom burst into applause.
"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!," said Rachel Farrell, Farrell's mother. "I'm so relieved," she said as she left the courtroom.
Attorneys with the California District Attorneys Association, a nonprofit organization, helped prosecute the case. The group contracts with rural counties to investigate and prosecute criminal violations.
Denise Mejlszenkier, an attorney with the association, acted as deputy district attorney. Mejlszenkier, who was deputized by Sharon O'Sullivan, then the county's lame duck district attorney, signed the complaint against Miller, Farrell and the mine on Nov. 20, 2002, court papers show.
Miller will file a complaint against the county in a week over the role of the California District Attorneys Association, he said. "We're pretty prepared for it, he said. "These are private vigilantes," Miller said of the attorneys.
He said that the worst is that allegations are hard to erase from the public's mind.
Allen, the district attorney, said he could still refile the case. "We need to reassess the case and make some determination at some point," he said.
Allen said the attorneys with the California District Attorneys Association did a good job in presenting evidence in a complex case.
The Patterson report was inadmissible, Allen said, and the evidence in the report would not have made a difference. The grand jury would have still presented an indictment, he said.
David Lee O'Donnell of Downieville and Rick Frederking, of Grass Valley, both of whom own mines, came to the hearing to support for Miller and Farrell.
Mining is challenging work, the two said at lunch. But it is no more dangerous than driving a car.
"I think a lot of it is discrimination against Miller," O'Donnell said.
They also came out of concern, the two also said.
"That could have been me," Frederking said.
The charges carried a prison term of up to three years and fines up to $100,000.
Kerana M. Todorov