Capital Punishment for Corporations: Time to Start

We used to do this to horse thieves. How about executing a few corporations? (Photo by Joe Hall/Flickr)

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that corporations are citizens, their money is speech, and their right to buy politicians with their money is protected by the Constitution. If they are persons, in this respect, then why should their lives not be forfeit when they commit horrific crimes? We kill people, don’t we? And if we’re going to start meting out capital punishment to corporations, I have a nomination for who goes first: Massey Energy.


Massey Energy owned and operated the mine in West Virgina where an explosion killed 29 miners a year ago. A year of investigations has confirmed what every miner knew but was afraid to say: Massey Energy deliberately and willfully exposed its employees to deadly risks in order to maximize its profits.

This week, federal investigators revealed that Massey systematically concealed the multiple safety hazards in the mine from state and federal regulators, going so far as to keep two sets of books, one for internal use that recorded the myriad problems and the minimal efforts to deal with them, and another for the regulators to review, in which everything was fine.

The miners knew everything was not fine. The mine was not properly ventilated; its old sections were not properly sealed to prevent methane concentration; coal dust was allowed to accumulate to dangerous — meaning explosive — levels (sprayers that were supposed to help keep it down did not work). Massey accumulated thousands of violations, about which little was done by pliant regulators, and then one day the mine blew up and 29 people died.

Don Blankenship was the CEO of Massey at the time. He was made famous by the writer John Grisham, who based a novel on Blankenship’s brazen financing of the campaign of a West Virginia Supreme Court judge who, having won the election with Massey Energy money, dismissed a high-dollar lawsuit against Massey Energy. How things are done in West Virginia.

Few people on earth are as powerful as a coal baron on his home turf, and Blankenship’s sense of entitlement and infallibility were larger than most coal barons’. After the explosion he actually contended, in public, that state and federal regulators were responsible for the deaths of the miners because they had interfered with his bidness. Later, he claimed that the explosion was caused by a sudden infusion of natural gas into the mine, an unforeseeable and unprecedented act of God.

Balderdash. Federal investigators determined that the explosion was caused by accumulations of coal dust and methane that a prudent mine operator would not have allowed. But Blankenship and Massey were far more worried about their profits than the safety — hell, the survival — of their employees.

The men have been dead for a year and no one has been held accountable. The two people — count them, one, two — who have been indicted in connection with the explosion are charged with lying to investigators. Eighteen Massey executives took the Fifth to avoid talking to investigators. Blankenship sold the company and ran for the proverbial hills.

If it’s too much to ask to see Blankenship and his 18 enablers doing the perp-walk into a steel-barred house of correction (and it’s not), why could we not have a cremation ceremony for the corporate charter of Massey Energy, so that it cannot operate so much as a taco stand ever again?

They killed people, didn’t they?

[For an update on this  story, and for short takes on other subjects, check out The Editor’s Log.]

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4 Responses to Capital Punishment for Corporations: Time to Start

  1. Gail Zawacki says:

    I would go a little further and say that the top executives, members of the Board of Trustees, and SHAREHOLDERS all be held liable for the actions of the corporations. Maybe even political appointees to regulatory agencies that aren’t fulfilling their mandate.

    That would be a big step towards reining them in!

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Absolutely. For details about another bis step toward reining them in — to deprive corporations of the status of personhood — see the July 6 entry in The Editor’s Log.

  2. Harry Flare says:

    If Corporations are people why don’t they die? The simplest way to fix this would have corporations have a life span of 50 years. At the end of 50 years they die and the survivors (stock owners/executives who keep it going) pay estate tax and have to start over like a real person’s heirs would do with his real property, store, farm, ranch, or business.

    The stocks, bonds, and real property of a corporation could then be valued based on how far away the 50 year old death was in the future.

    We must eliminate the “Trust” loop hole in the estate tax so each fifty years the corporation actually must pay the tax and start over.

  3. dina padilla says:

    When the justice system starting with District Attorneys STOPS receiving money from citizen corporation citizens to combat crime(usually against real innocent citizens)only then will we get real justice. Our current justice system is bought and paid for by corporate American or internationl citizens. Oxymoron but the corporations have it ALL ways.