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Supreme Court divided over former Enron CEO's appeal

U.S. Supreme Court justices signaled they are divided on Jeffrey Skilling's appeal of his conviction for leading the accounting fraud that drove Enron Corp. into bankruptcy.

The justices spent most of the one-hour argument session in Washington yesterday debating whether the trial should have been moved from Houston, where thousands of Enron employees lost their jobs. A favorable ruling on that issue would mean a new trial for Skilling, Enron's former chief executive, overturning a signature prosecution victory.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested she will vote for Skilling, saying U.S. District Judge Sim Lake failed to adequately question prospective jurors, including a woman who lost $50,000 to $60,000 because of the Enron fraud. After the judge refused to remove her, Skilling's lawyers used one of their automatic challenges to eliminate her.

"How can we be satisfied that there was a fair and impartial jury picked when the judge doesn't follow up on a witness who says, 'I'm a victim of this fraud?' " asked Sotomayor, the only justice who once served as a trial judge. "I would find it strange that we would permit jurors who are victims of the crime to serve as jurors."

Chief Justice John Roberts was more supportive of Lake, saying the judge made the "reasonable" decision to conduct the juror questioning, or "voir dire," himself rather than turn the task over to the lawyers.

Justice Stephen Breyer said he is "really worried" that the high court might "get into the business of running the trial court's trials." Breyer also aimed questions at a government lawyer and didn't clearly indicate which way he will vote. The Supreme Court will rule by July.

Skilling was convicted in May 2006 alongside Kenneth Lay, the former Enron chairman who died less than two months later.

Skilling, 56, is serving a 24-year sentence in a federal prison in Colorado. A federal appeals court upheld the conviction.

His appeal also contends that a federal law banning so-called honest services fraud is unconstitutionally vague. A victory on that issue would overturn at least one count of his 19-count conviction.

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