Law School Case Brief
Skilling v. United States - 561 U.S. 358, 130 S. Ct. 2896 (2010)
In proscribing fraudulent deprivations of the intangible right of honest services, 18 U.S.C.S. § 1346, Congress intended at least to reach schemes to defraud involving bribes and kickbacks. Construing the honest-services statute to extend beyond that core meaning would encounter a vagueness shoal. Therefore, § 1346 covers only bribery and kickback schemes.
Prejudice due to pretrial publicity is not presumed, especially in a case in which jurors' actions run counter to that presumption. A jury's ability to discern a failure of proof of guilt of some of the alleged crimes indicates a fair minded consideration of the issues.
Jeffrey Skilling, a longtime Enron officer, was Enron's chief executive officer from February until August 2001, when he resigned. Less than four months later, Enron crashed into bankruptcy, and its stock plummeted in value. After an investigation uncovered an elaborate conspiracy to prop up Enron's stock prices by overstating the company's financial well-being, the Government prosecuted dozens of Enron employees who participated in the scheme. In time, the Government worked its way up the chain of command, indicting Skilling and two other top Enron executives. Skilling moved for a change of venue, contending that hostility toward him in Houston. He submitted hundreds of news reports detailing Enron's downfall, as well as affidavits from experts he engaged portraying community attitudes in Houston in comparison to other potential venues. The District Court denied the motion, concluding that pretrial publicity did not warrant a presumption that Skilling would be unable to obtain a fair trial in Houston. Despite incidents of intemperate commentary, the court observed, media coverage, on the whole, had been objective and unemotional, and the facts of the case were neither heinous nor sensational. Skilling claimed that his trial should have been moved to a different venue because of pretrial publicity.
Whether the district court erred in denying Skilling’s requests for a venue transfer and whether Skilling was liable for honest-services fraud?
The Supreme Court found that defendant's Sixth Amendment right to trial by an impartial jury was not violated. No presumption of juror prejudice arose, nor was there a showing of actual prejudice; a comprehensive questionnaire was used in addition to voir dire to ensure against jury bias. In order to avoid vagueness concerns, the Court held that § 1346 criminalized only schemes to defraud involving bribery or kickbacks, which were the core applications of the honest-services doctrine that predated the statute. Because defendant was not alleged to have solicited or accepted side payments from a third party in exchange for making the alleged misrepresentations, he did not commit honest services fraud. Whether the error was harmless or whether it affected any of defendant's other convictions was a matter for remand.
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