Federal Criminal Law – USA v. Skilling, Fair Enough for Government Work

48557_the_crooked_e.jpgThe Supreme Court finally chimed in this summer on the appropriateness of having the criminal trial of Enron badboys Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling in Houston, Texas, where most of the population had been effected by the collapse of the corporate giant. We all knew what happened to Enron, and we all blamed Lay and Skilling for its demise. After all, they were in charge when it went from boom to bust, right?

I moved to Houston shortly after Enron fell, and its demise was the talk and tragedy of the town. The media coverage saturated the city and Lay and Skilling were public enemy numbers 1 and 1A. Prior to their criminal trial, their lawyers spent around $1 million on surveys of Houstonians which revealed that Lay and Skilling ranked somewhere below Satan in the minds of most people in the prospective jury pool.

Nonetheless, the lynch mob/jury panel was brought into Federal Court in Houston so they could tell the Federal judge whether or not they could be “fair and impartial” enough to sit on their trial. Even though they thought Lay and Skilling guilty as hell, they could “set aside those feelings” and judge the case on the evidence. As jury consultant Robert Hirschorn said, the judge in that case spent 5 hours rehabilitating the jurors (getting presumptively disqualified jurors to correct their views on the record).

As can be expected, the 12 found both Lay and Skilling guilty as charged. The Fifth Circuit, as the Fifth Circuit does, affirmed, and the Supreme Court affirmed earlier this summer. I will discuss this decision more in upcoming posts.