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Senate Bill Would Preserve Federal Convictions if Defendant Dies

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL), both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation Thursday that would require a federal conviction to stand in the event of the death of a defendant and would allow victims to seek restitution from the defendant's estate.

The bipartisan bill follows a decision by Houston U.S. District Judge Sim Lake last month to throw out a jury verdict that found former Enron CEO Ken Lay guilty of committing fraud and conspiracy in the months leading up to Enron's collapse in late 2001. By doing so, the court stripped Enron victims of the chance to receive relief from Lay's estate.

Lay had been convicted on 10 counts of fraud, conspiracy and lying to banks in two separate cases. He died unexpectedly of heart disease on July 5 while vacationing in Aspen, CO. He was to be sentenced on Oct. 23.

"This bill would correct a problem recently highlighted in the criminal case of former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay...We need to ensure that, in these types of cases, hard-won convictions are preserved and restitution remains available for the victims of crime," Feinstein said.

Lake, who presided over Lay's and Skilling's four-month trial in Houston, agreed with Lay's attorneys that his convictions should be erased because of his death. Lay's lawyers cited a 2004 ruling by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which found a defendant's death pending appeal extinguished the conviction because the accused had not had a full opportunity to challenge the conviction. Lake's ruling will prevent the government from seeking about $43 million from Lay's estate, which it sought because prosecutors alleged Lay had enriched himself through illegal means by participating in Enron's fraud.

The Feinstein-Sessions bill would, in the event of a death, allow a representative of the defendant's estate to stand in the shoes of the defendant and challenge or appeal his conviction if they want, and to secure a lawyer -- either on their own or by having one appointed. It also would give the federal government an additional two years after a defendant's death to file a parallel civil forfeiture lawsuit.

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