The Lord and Richard Scrushy

By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, July 3, 2005

God works in mysterious ways, but his or her decision to acquit Richard Scrushy, former CEO of HealthSouth Corp., on all charges of financial fraud is especially inscrutable. Five consecutive HealthSouth chief financial officers admitted to cooking the books and copped a plea. They all fingered Scrushy. But jurors chose to believe that the man on top knew nothing about what was going on directly below him.

That kind of ignorance doesn't come cheap. No one denies there was massive fraud at HealthSouth. The government estimates that Scrushy made almost $300 million from the alleged fraud, and he'll get to keep it minus lawyer's fees. Other prominent business defendants have tried the ignorance defense but found that juries tend to think that the more you're paid, the more you ought to know about what's going on around you. Bernard Ebbers of Worldcom Corp., apparently the most convincing of the recent CEO ignoramus wannabes, is facing prosecutors' request for a life sentence.

Experts say the Scrushy prosecution should have been a slam-dunk. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page seemed amazed that he got off. The Journal approved, of course, but couldn't really explain why. Meanwhile, jurors quoted in the papers said they were bothered by things like the lack of Scrushy fingerprints on copies of the crucial documents.

Only one word can describe Scrushy's acquittal. It is a miracle.

Miracles happen, just like that other stuff. But miracles don't just happen. They require work. Money doesn't hurt, either. When Scrushy was indicted, he hired God. Less inspired defendants might have settled for the late Johnnie Cochran or Jack Abramoff. Scrushy, though, went straight to the top.

He left his suburban evangelical church and joined a predominantly black congregation in a blue-collar neighborhood. He bought a half-hour of local TV for a morning prayer show featuring himself and his wife, and frequent guest spots by black ministers. He had a prayer group praying for him every day at the trial. All this was in Birmingham, Ala., where HealthSouth was located and where the trial occurred.

Cynics have suggested that Scrushy and his advisers might have been trying to influence the local jury with these tactics. This, if I might say so, is a typical example of the anti-Christian bias that so many folks complain about in the liberal media. Why can't a man turn to God in his moment of trial (or, indeed, in his actual criminal trial) without being accused of ulterior motives? Scrushy prayed, and his prayers were answered. "God is good," he said on the courthouse steps after the jury verdict. And well he might think so.

The Post got in trouble a million years ago for an article that described evangelical Christians as "poor, undereducated and easily led." The paper apologized almost immediately and many times afterward. And, like every major paper in those cesspools of secularism that are America's big cities, The Post now seizes any opportunity to slobber over religion and to show respect to religious people, especially evangelical Christians.

But with their cynical suggestion that Richard Scrushy and his defense team might have been using religion to con the jury, the liberal media reveal that they are still heathens. Not only do they still secretly think that devoutly religious people in the Deep South are "poor, undereducated and easily led," but they imply that Richard Scrushy and his defense team may think so, too. What could be a bigger insult to a godly man who has now been acquitted of all wrongdoing?

The obvious lesson of the Scrushy verdict is that prayer works. What do the cynics say now? Even Martha Stewart, who keeps thousands of people out of church every Sunday because they are too busy searching for fresh kale or folding their handkerchiefs and whose obsessive celebration of the material world makes her possibly the least spiritual figure in American public life (though no worse for that, in my opinion), might well wish she had fallen to her knees before it was too late.

To anybody but Scrushy, his acquittal doesn't necessarily prove that there is a God. To some HealthSouth investors, it may even suggest the opposite. And the view of those five former HealthSouth CFOs may be even bleaker. But if there is a God, it is hard to see the Scrushy acquittal as anything but the result of divine intervention.

So there is no puzzle about Scrushy's motives. The intriguing question is, what were God's motives? Being all-knowing, He or She doesn't need fingerprints and has no doubts, reasonable or otherwise. Are we supposed to conclude that prayer, if suitably ostentatious, can be an acceptable substitute for goodness, rather than a reflection of it?

Or is this a demonstration of God's powers? A good defense attorney can get an innocent man off, but it takes a great defense attorney to get a guilty man off. Maybe it's the same with deities.

All we can say is, God knows.

The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company