Are Prosecutors Going Too Far?

I have been following the Lay/Skilling Enron trial fairly closely, if only because in a past life I worked briefly with the principles, having worked with Jeff Skilling at McKinsey & Co. before he went to Enron.  By the way, if this causes you to assume this makes me particularly sympathetic to the gentlemen, think again.  Jeff Skilling is one of the brightest and most detail-oriented people I have ever worked with, giving me near certainty that his testimony before Congress where he imitated Sargent Shultz (I know nothing... NOTHING) was perjurous.   So I am not entirely neutral, but maybe not in the way you might imagine.

However, all that being said, Tom Kirkendall (whose blog is here and is doing a great job keeping up with the trial) has a very interesting post on the fairly scary tactics the Enron prosecution task force has brought to bear on a number of Enron and Enron-related defendants:

In an unprecedented move, the Task Force has named over 100 co-conspirators
in the case. So, the potential definitely exists for substantial
testimony about out-of-court statements going to the jury without the
defense ever having an opportunity to cross-examine the persons who
made the alleged statements. Moreover, fingering unindicted
co-conspirators is an equally effective technique for the Task Force to prevent testimony that is favorable to the defense
because persons named as unindicted co-conspirators are likely to the
assert their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and
thus, not be defense witnesses during the trial. Thus, the Task Force's
liberal use of the co-conspirator tag has a double-whammy effect -- not
only does it allow the Task Force to use out-of-court statements
against defendants without having the declarant of the statements
subjected to cross-examination, it has also effectively prevented
previous Enron-related defendants from obtaining crucial exculpatory
testimony from alleged co-conspirators who have elected to take the
Fifth and declined to testify.

The co-conspirator tactic has had a huge impact on two of the previous Enron-related trials. During the Nigerian Barge trial,
the Task Force used out-of-court statements of co-conspirators
regarding the key factual issue in the case -- that is, what was said
during a conference call between several Merrill and Enron executives,
including former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow -- without ever having to put
a witness on the stand who actually participated in the call.
Similarly, none of the dozens of unindicted co-conspirators testified
on behalf of the defendants during that trial, so the Task Force's use
of the tactic effectively prevented the Merrill Lynch executives in
that case from providing the jury with exculpatory testimony. Not
surprisingly, the Task Force's liberal use of the co-conspirator tactic
has become a key appellate point for the Merrill executives in the appeal of their convictions.

Similarly, the importance of the co-conspirator issue on freezing
out exculpatory testimony was brought into full focus during the trial
of the Enron Broadband case last year. In a trial that, at the outset, appeared to be a sure-thing for the prosecution, the Task Force's case unraveled quickly as witnesses Lawrence Ciscon and Beth Stier
both testified to a riveted jury about how the Task Force's threats of
prosecution against them gave them second thoughts about providing the
exculpatory testimony that they gave during the trial. That trial ended
in a disastrous mix of acquittals and jury deadlock on the prosecution's charges.

The ability to face and cross-examine your accusers is a fundamental part of the American legal system.  Even well-intentioned relaxing of this principle has in the past led to innocent people going to jail.

Update:  Kirkendall writes that the same issue is being addressed on appeal in the Worldcom trial of Bernard Ebbers.

  • Warren,
    I found your comment about Skilling interesting in light of what I have come to understand after reading "The Smartest Guys in the Room". The authors would leave you to believe that Skilling came up with the "ideas" and left the messy work of "execution" up to lesser mortals which somewhat contradicts your comment about Skilling being "detail oriented". I have also seen the documentary. I loved the book but thought that some of the comments of the director of the documentary betrayed an apalling lack of understanding of the way that markets work. Have you read the book? If so, did you like it?
    Steve