Mockery of Justice: Why SCOTUS Should Let Jeff Skilling Out of Jail

by Kurt Schulzke on October 23, 2009

When a prominent Houston attorney advocates exonerating a convicted Enron executive you have to believe — as I have long argued — that something is seriously wrong with the conviction.  In his excellent post, The Reeling Prosecution in the Skilling Case, Houston Attorney Tom Kirkendall explains why the U.S. Supreme Court should (and likely will) let Jeff Skilling out of jail when it hears his case.

For those with short attention spans, the bottom line is that Jeff Skilling was convicted and sent to jail for 24 years (a sentence recently set aside by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in a weirdly self-contradictory opinion) because a Houston jury, poisoned by months of anti-Skilling and anti-Enron propaganda, decided that Skilling exercised bad business judgment as Enron’s CEO during the company’s death spiral. The jury’s theory, doubtless buttressed by years of education and experience running companies in the complex energy derivatives markets, was apparently that any business executive dumb enough or nice enough to try to rescue the jobs and retirement plans of thousands of employees from a perfect market storm had damn-well better save the company or get ready for the guillotine.

Skilling’s conviction and sentence are shocking. Compelling evidence of Skilling’s innocence (and the prosecution’s guilt) is provided by his 209-page Petition for Writ of Certiorari.

One prong of Skilling’s defense is that “honest services wire fraud,” codified at 8 U.S.C. § 1346, is chaotic nonsense that fosters politically-motivated witch hunts any time a big company’s stock plunges in value for whatever reason.  Kirkendall notes:

Inasmuch as there is now a split between Fifth Circuit decisions and several other circuit appellate courts on the scope of honest services wire-fraud, the issue is ripe for Supreme Court consideration. Indeed, Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year urged the Supreme Court to take up the issue in his dissent from denial of certiorari in Sorich, et al v. U.S., 129 S.Ct. 1308, 1310 (2009):

“Without some coherent limiting principle to define what ‘the intangible right of honest services’ is, whence it derives, and how it is violated, this expansive phrase invites abuse by headline grabbing prosecutors in pursuit of local officials, state legislators, and corporate CEOs who engage in any manner of unappealing or ethically questionable conduct.  .   .   . Indeed, it seems to me quite irresponsible to let the current chaos prevail.”