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Grace trial resumes with no decision on Locke

by University of MontanaJosh Benham
| April 14, 2009 12:00 AM

The W.R. Grace & Co. environmental trial resumed Wednesday following a week-and-a-half break with Judge Donald Molloy undecided about allowing the testimony of a former company executive.

Molloy said Wednesday morning that he would put off ruling on whether Robert Locke’s testimony should be stricken – a request made in the face of allegations that Locke perjured himself on the witness stand.

Molloy had stern words for Locke, who was not present in the courtroom.

“He’s as close as I would ever want to see to perjury,” Molloy said. “I think he’s perjured himself. If not he’s coming as close as I’ve ever seen.”

The judge still has not officially ruled because in part, he is not quite sure if allowing the former Grace employee’s testimony is a “matter for the jury or for me.”

Molloy said he had gone as far as drafting an order to strike Locke’s testimony, but the judge said that decision was based on his “reaction to the man” himself. He said after looking at only the legal side, the issue was muddied somewhat, and he was not ready to make a ruling.

In “reserving judgment,” Molloy said there would be no more testimony from Locke until the issue is settled. The judge also admonished Locke not to follow any of the trial on the Internet, particularly the district court website. Molloy sternly reminded the government attorneys that responsibility for the behavior of its witnesses ultimately rested on the state’s shoulders.

Court reconvened Wednesday morning after an intermission that coincided with the spring break of Missoula public schools and the University of Montana. When the trial did begin, it picked up right where it left off, with lead defense attorney David Bernick upset at the government for various last-minute actions.

The defense accused the prosecution of submitting new material at 7:30 Tuesday night. Molloy asked Bernick if they needed a continuance to examine the material. Bernick said they did not, but were upset with the prosecution’s organization.

“This is a problem that they’ve created,” Bernick said. “Their process is in shambles, and it’s profoundly problematic. The government has dropped two major witnesses, and has whole new witnesses.”

After the defense’s concerns were aired, the government called its next witness. Steven Venuti was division toxicology coordinator for W.R. Grace when he stopped working at the company in 1989.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean took the initial questioning period to explain to the court Venuti’s various duties at the company. Venuti took part in a multitude of studies on the effects of vermiculite.

At one point, he described a test where he took bags of vermiculite into a small room, and “kicked it up into the air.” His main jobs were to determine fiber exposure for various products that contained vermiculite and calculate the potential dangers, if any, of the materials.

McLean walked Venuti through a slew of Grace documents, having him explain any technical terms on the documents. All of the evidence dealt with assorted tests of vermiculite, like the binder tests. Venuti discussed the method, where agents such as water, soybean oil or starch were sprayed on the vermiculite. Reducing airborne fiber concentrations was the point of the tests.