The AP reports that Ken Lay's conviction was vacated in federal district court today. Overturning of a criminal judgment is per se proof that a serious error occurred at trial. Further, the high percentage of overturnings of convictions of CEOs of very large corporations is proof that the system of trying CEOs is broken. We should all start wringing our hands and call for an immediate moratorium on the trial of mega-CEOs until this broken system is fixed.
The foregoing drivel is strikingly similar to an argument we have heard with some regularity in the death penalty debate. However, the argument was taken seriously in the death penalty context. A judgment may be overturned in a criminal case, even though everyone involved in the trial performed correctly, because of events occurring after the trial. In Lay's case, the defendant died during the appeal, and the federal courts still adhere to the bizarre rule that this results in automatic vacation of the sentence. (Imagine an appellate attorney discussing this rule with his client. "You want a guaranteed reversal? Yes, I can do that, but there's just one small catch.")
In capital cases as well, a trial conducted in full accord with the rules in effect at the time may be reversed if the rules change down the road. For example, capital sentences have been reversed because: (1) the jury was instructed with the original Texas special issues, considered and upheld as a valid method of sentencing in Jurek v. Texas; (2) the jury was given evidence of the impact of the crime on additional victims in accordance with a statute of the state, erroneously declared unconstitutional in Booth v. Maryland, which was overruled in Payne v. Tennessee; (3) the judge rather than the jury found the circumstances that qualified the case as capital, a procedure expressly approved in Walton v. Arizona; (4) the jury considered mild retardation as a mitigating circumstance rather than a categorical exclusion, a mode of proceeding upheld in Penry v. Lynaugh. I could go on and on, but that's enough.