By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Former Enron chief executive Jeffrey K. Skilling received at least a brief reprieve from prison yesterday after a federal appeals court said it needed more time to consider whether he should remain free pending appeal.
Skilling, 53, had been preparing to turn himself in today and begin serving a prison term of 24 years and six months at a federal facility in Waseca, Minn. But a brief order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, issued yesterday evening, means the brash former corporate executive will enjoy at least a few more days of freedom.
Skilling's lawyers are attacking a theory that the appeals court had invalidated last summer in another case tied to the Houston energy trading company. The appeals court ruling granted Skilling an undetermined delay "solely to allow this court to give careful consideration to the request for bail pending appeal," the order said.
Legal analysts said the court could ultimately force Skilling to report to the 1,070-inmate prison 75 miles south of Minneapolis within days -- or the judges could take even more time to consider the issue. To stay free pending a months- or years-long appeal, Skilling would need to show a substantial chance that he would succeed.
Defense lawyers have criticized the trial judge's jury instructions and the decision to hold the trial in Houston, where thousands of people lost jobs and retirement savings when Enron sought bankruptcy protection five years ago.
"We are glad to hear that the court of appeals is taking the necessary time to consider this matter, which is vital to Jeff Skilling's immediate future," Skilling's lawyer, Daniel M. Petrocelli, said in a telephone interview yesterday.
A Houston jury convicted Skilling in May of 19 counts of conspiracy, making false statements, insider trading and securities fraud.
Under the legal theory the defense team has advanced, the conspiracy charge ultimately could be erased, perhaps along with the securities fraud convictions. But it is less clear that the charges of insider trading and making false statements to auditors would be affected, the legal experts said.
Barry Pollack, a defense lawyer at Kelley Drye Collier Shannon in the District, said Skilling should be "heartened" by the move.
"It at a minimum suggests the 5th Circuit thinks there are legitimate issues that shouldn't be given the back of the hand," said Pollack, who won acquittal for another Enron official earlier this year.