NEW ORLEANS — The first criminal trial produced by the Justice Department’s sweeping investigation of BP’s massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico ended Wednesday with a jury convicting a drilling engineer of trying to obstruct investigators by deleting text messages from his cellular phone.
Kurt Mix, a former BP employee who worked on the company’s efforts to stop the nation’s worst offshore oil spill, embraced stunned relatives and friends after jurors convicted him of an obstruction-of-justice charge punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The jury acquitted Mix of a second count.
Mix, a 52-year-old from Katy, Texas, declined to be interviewed after the verdict, but his attorneys vowed to fight his conviction.
Attorney General Eric Holder visited New Orleans in 2010 to announce that the Justice Department had opened criminal investigations of the spill.
Mix, who was arrested in April 2012, was the first of four current or former BP employees charged with spill-related crimes.
BP took corporate responsibility for its role in the catastrophe earlier this year, pleading guilty in January to manslaughter charges for the workers’ deaths and agreeing to pay a record $4 billion in penalties. But none of the top executives at the London-based oil giant have been charged with crimes.
David Uhlmann, a University of Michigan law professor and former chief of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section, said Mix was a ‘‘sympathetic defendant’’ because his conduct seemed relatively minor in the context of a disaster that killed 11 workers and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. Uhlmann, however, said the Justice Department appropriately has a ‘‘zero-tolerance policy’’ for those who destroy evidence.
A Justice Department official, Mythili Raman, thanked federal agents for their ‘‘dedication and tenacity’’ on the case.