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High court rules that former Enron executive got a fair trial

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  1. Prior Restraint
Former Enron Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling received a fair trial in Houston, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in Skilling…

Former Enron Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling received a fair trial in Houston, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in Skilling v. United States.

Heavy pretrial publicity does not create a presumption of juror bias that should lead to a change in venue, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the court’s main opinion, and the trial court in this case was not required to move Skilling’s trial from Houston.

“News stories about Enron did not present the kind of vivid, unforgettable information we have recognized as particularly likely to produce prejudice, and Houston’s size and diversity diluted the media’s impact,” the court’s opinion read.

The justices pointed out that the news stories about Enron did not contain confessions or “other blatantly prejudicial information” that jurors wouldn’t forget and that four years had passed between Enron’s collapse and Skilling’s trial, during which media coverage had diminished.

Most telling, the court said, was the fact that Skilling’s jury acquitted him of multiple charges.

The justices also found that the jury selection process was sufficient to detect any juror bias. Skilling’s attorneys claimed that since jury selection only lasted five hours, it was not adequate to weed out any potentially biased jurors.

Justice Ginsburg wrote that because each juror filled out lengthy questionnaires before being questioned by the judge, the justices were satisfied that the process “successfully secured jurors who were largely untouched by Enron’s collapse.”

She also noted that all of Skilling’s jurors had said that they would be able to come to a verdict using only the evidence presented at the trial.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer, wrote a dissenting opinion, stating that Skilling did not receive a fair trial before an impartial jury.

“The District Court’s inquiry lacked the necessary thoroughness and left serious doubts about whether the jury empaneled to decide Skilling’s case was capable of rendering an impartial decision based solely on the evidence presented in the courtroom,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.

The outcome of the case rested on Skilling’s claim that he was wrongly convicted under the “honest services” statute, which the justices agreed was problematic. The Court sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings in light of their ruling.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press joined a friend-of-the-court brief, filed on behalf of 17 media organizations, that argued that pretrial publicity does not typically lead to bias and juror bias can be uncovered through the jury selection process.