561 U.S. 358 (2010), 08-1394, Shilling v. United States

Docket Nº:08-1394.
Citation:561 U.S. 358, 130 S.Ct. 2896, 177 L.Ed.2d 619, 78 U.S.L.W. 4735
Opinion Judge:GINSBURG, Justice.
Party Name:Jeffrey K. SHILLING, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES.
Attorney:Todd G. Scher, for Petitioner. Scott D. Makar, for Respondent. Elena Kagan, Solicitor General, Mythili Raman, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, David A. O'Neil, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Joel Gershowitz, Kevin Gingras, Department of Justice...
Judge Panel:GINSBURG, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, Part I of which was joined by ROBERTS, C.J., and STEVENS, SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., Part II of which was joined by ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., and Part III of which was joined by ROBERTS, C. J., and STEVENS...
Case Date:June 24, 2010
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 358

561 U.S. 358 (2010)

130 S.Ct. 2896, 177 L.Ed.2d 619, 78 U.S.L.W. 4735

Jeffrey K. SHILLING, Petitioner,



No. 08-1394.

United States Supreme Court

June 24, 2010

Argued March 1, 2010


[177 L.Ed.2d 627] [130 S.Ct. 2899] Syllabus [*]

Founded in 1985, Enron Corporation grew from its headquarters in Houston, Texas, into the seventh highest-revenue-grossing company in America. Petitioner 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 [130 S.Ct. 2900] 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. These three defendants, the indictment charged, engaged in a scheme to deceive investors about Enron's true financial performance by manipulating its publicly reported financial results and making false and misleading statements. Count 1 of the indictment charged Skilling with, inter alia, conspiracy to commit "honest-services" wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. §§371, 1343, 1346, by depriving Enron and its shareholders of the intangible right of his honest services. Skilling was also charged with over 25 substantive counts of securities fraud, wire fraud, making false representations to Enron's auditors, and insider trading.

In November 2004, Skilling moved for a change of venue, contending that hostility toward him in Houston, coupled with extensive pretrial publicity, had poisoned potential jurors. He submitted hundreds of news reports detailing Enron's downfall, as well as affidavits from experts he engaged [177 L.Ed.2d 628] 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. Moreover, the court asserted, effective voir dire would detect juror bias.

In the months before the trial, the court asked the parties for questions it might use to screen prospective jurors. Rejecting the Government's sparer inquiries in favor of Skilling's more probing and specific

Page 359

questions, the court converted Skilling's submission, with slight modifications, into a 77-question, 14-page document. The questionnaire asked prospective jurors about their sources of news and exposure to Enron-related publicity, beliefs concerning Enron and what caused its collapse, opinions regarding the defendants and their possible guilt or innocence, and relationships to the company and to anyone affected by its demise. The court then mailed the questionnaire to 400 prospective jurors and received responses from nearly all of them. It granted hardship exemptions to about 90 individuals, and the parties, with the court's approval, further winnowed the pool by excusing another 119 for cause, hardship, or physical disability. The parties agreed to exclude, in particular, every prospective juror who said that a preexisting opinion about Enron or the defendants would prevent her from being impartial.

In December 2005, three weeks before the trial date, one of Skilling's co-defendants, Richard Causey, pleaded guilty. Skilling renewed his change-of-venue motion, arguing that the juror questionnaires revealed pervasive bias and that news accounts of Causey's guilty plea further tainted the jury pool. The court again declined to move the trial, ruling that the questionnaires and voir dire provided safeguards adequate to ensure an impartial jury. The court also denied Skilling's request for attorney-led voir dire on the ground that potential jurors were more forthcoming with judges than with lawyers. But the court promised to give counsel an opportunity to ask follow-up questions, agreed that venire members should be examined individually about pretrial[130 S.Ct. 2901] publicity, and allotted the defendants jointly two extra peremptory challenges.

Voir dire began in January 2006. After questioning the venire as a group, the court examined prospective jurors individually, asking each about her exposure to Enron-related news, the content of any stories that stood out in her mind, and any questionnaire answers that raised a red flag signaling possible bias. The court then permitted each side to pose follow-up questions and ruled on the parties' challenges for cause. Ultimately, the court qualified 38 prospective jurors, a number sufficient, allowing for peremptory challenges, to empanel 12 jurors and 4 alternates. After a 4-month trial, the jury found Skilling guilty of 19 counts, including the honest-services-fraud conspiracy charge, and not guilty of 9 insider-trading counts.

On appeal, Skilling raised two arguments relevant here. First, he contended that pretrial publicity and community prejudice prevented him from obtaining a fair trial. Second, he [177 L.Ed.2d 629] alleged that the jury improperly convicted him of conspiracy to commit honest-services wire fraud. As to the former, the Fifth Circuit initially determined that the

Page 360

volume and negative tone of media coverage generated by Enron's collapse created a presumption of juror prejudice. Stating, however, that the presumption is rebuttable, the court examined the voir dire, found it "proper and thorough, " and held that the District Court had empaneled an impartial jury. The Court of Appeals also rejected Skilling's claim that his conduct did not indicate any conspiracy to commit honest-services fraud. It did not address Skilling's argument that the honest-services statute, if not interpreted to exclude his actions, should be invalidated as unconstitutionally vague.


1. Pretrial publicity and community prejudice did not prevent Skilling from obtaining a fair trial. He did not establish that a presumption of juror prejudice arose or that actual bias infected the jury that tried him. Pp. 2912 - 2925, 177 L.Ed.2d, at 640-654.

(a) The District Court did not err in denying Skilling's requests for a venue transfer. Pp. 2912 - 2917, 177 L.Ed.2d, at 641-646.

(1) Although the Sixth Amendment and Art. III, §2, cl. 3, provide for criminal trials in the State and district where the crime was committed, these place-of-trial prescriptions do not impede transfer of a proceeding to a different district if extraordinary local prejudice will prevent a fair trial. Pp. 2912 - 2913, 177 L.Ed.2d, at 641.

(2) The foundation precedent for the presumption of prejudice from which the Fifth Circuit's analysis proceeded is Rideau v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. 723, 83 S.Ct. 1417, 10 L.Ed.2d 663. Wilbert Rideau robbed a small-town bank, kidnaped three bank employees, and killed one of them. Police interrogated Rideau in jail without counsel present and obtained his confession, which, without his knowledge, was filmed and televised three times to large local audiences shortly before trial. After the Louisiana trial court denied Rideau's change-of-venue motion, he was convicted, and the conviction was upheld on direct appeal. This Court reversed. "[T]o the tens of thousands of people who saw and heard it," the Court explained, the interrogation "in a very real sense was Rideau's trial—at which he pleaded guilty." Id., at 726, 83 S.Ct. 1417, 10 L.Ed.2d 663. " [W]ithout pausing to examine ... the voir dire," the Court held that the "kangaroo court proceedings" trailing the televised confession violated due process. Id., at 726-727, 83 S.Ct. 1417, 10 L.Ed.2d 663. The Court followed Rideau in two other cases in which media coverage manifestly tainted criminal prosecutions. However, it later explained that those decisions [130 S.Ct. 2902] "cannot be made to stand for the proposition that juror exposure to ... news accounts of the crime ... alone presumptively deprives the defendant of due process." Murphy v. Florida, 421 U.S. 794, 798-799, 95 S.Ct. 2031, 44 L.Ed.2d 589. Thus, prominence does not necessarily produce prejudice, and juror impartiality does not require ignorance.

Page 361

See, e.g., Irvin v. Dowd, 366 U.S. 717, 722, 81 S.Ct. 1639, 6 L.Ed.2d 751. A presumption of prejudice attends only the extreme case. Pp. 2913 -2915, 177 L.Ed.2d, at 641-643.

(3) Important differences separate Skilling's prosecution from those in which the Court has presumed juror [177 L.Ed.2d 630] prejudice. First, the Court has emphasized the size and characteristics of the community in which the crime occurred. In contrast to the small-town setting in Rideau, for example, the record shows that Houston is the Nation's fourth most populous city. Given the large, diverse pool of residents eligible for jury duty, any suggestion that 12 impartial individuals could not be empaneled in Houston is hard to sustain. Second, although news stories about Skilling were not kind, they contained no blatantly prejudicial information such as Rideau's dramatically staged admission of guilt. Third, unlike Rideau and other cases in which trial swiftly followed a widely reported crime, over four years elapsed between Enron's bankruptcy and Skilling's trial. Although reporters covered Enron-related news throughout this period, the decibel level of media attention diminished somewhat in the years following Enron's collapse. Finally, and of prime significance, Skilling's jury acquitted him of nine insider-trading counts. Similarly, earlier instituted...

To continue reading