Lay's Conviction Is Gone With Him

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Former Enron CEO Ken Lay maintained throughout his fraud and conspiracy trial that he was an innocent man — a man who never should have been charged, never should have been indicted, and certainly never should have been convicted. After his death from a heart attack early Wednesday, it's almost as if he wasn't. Legally, his case died with him.

By law, Lay had a constitutional right to participate in his criminal appeal. And since he's no longer alive to help his attorneys prepare, the case will be "extinguished" — as if it never happened, explains Houston attorney Joel Androphy, author of the textbook White Collar Crime. "It's as if he was never charged and convicted," says Androphy. "This is the law. There may have been a moral victory for the government, but there's no longer a legal victory."

Lay's death won't stop the civil suits filed against him, however. In a civil case, a person can die and the case can go on; for example, if someone is killed in a nursing home, the family can sue. But Androphy says there will now be some restrictions limiting punitive damages. It's unclear if Lay's estate will be responsible for his criminal fines. Last week, prosecutors asked for $43.5 million.

The Department of Justice refused to comment on the status of Lay's case Wednesday, and Lay's attorney, Michael Ramsey, did not return calls from TIME. But the consensus from lawyers is that, despite Lay's conviction, the case will never be resolved. "It's discouraging and unfortunate," says former federal prosecutor Michael Wynne. "It's not as if he got away with it, of course. We have a system in place to punish people. And to redress wrongs and to try to get money back for people who have had it taken away." But a lot of former Enron employees are angry that Lay "never had to pay his dues. He is not ultimately going to be held accountable."

A New York lawyer representing former workers and retirees at Enron, Lowell Peterson, said the estate would probably be responsible for restitution and damages in civil actions, but added that not everyone might continue to press their claims. "Time will tell if those former employees and retirees harmed by the actions of Enron executives will pursue damages," he said in a statement. "The thousands of former Enron employees I represented with the AFL-CIO felt terribly betrayed — not only that they had lost their jobs and benefits, but that the company and executives they believed in had turned out to be dishonest, corrupt. At the time of the guilty verdict, I think many of these people were gratified by the moral judgment on Lay's actions."

Daniel Petrocelli, attorney for Lay's co-defendant, former CEO Jeffrey Skilling, says his client was saddened and shaken by Lay's death. "Jeff will miss him dearly," said Petrocelli. Skilling has already lost another close friend to the Enron debacle — vice president Cliff Baxter, who committed suicide in 2002. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last month, Skilling admitted he had considered suicide himself. Petrocelli refused to comment on the status of Lay's case. "It's inappropriate to be thinking or talking about that right now," Petrocelli told TIME. Petrocelli is continuing to work on Skilling's appeal, "to right what was a very unjust verdict," he says. "We were representing innocent men."

"The entire tragedy almost takes on Shakespearean dimensions," says David Berg, a Houston attorney who authored The Trial Lawyer: What it Takes to Win. "His fall from power was so great that it just destroyed him. In some ways, you would think that Ken Lay would rather have died than spent a moment in prison." Lay, who was awaiting sentencing in the fall, faced imprisonment for possibly the rest of his life. "On some subconscious level, it's a polite form of suicide. He was not going to let himself be imprisoned."