He was a man, after all — not just some abstract symbol of corporate thievery and vanished investor billions. Kenneth Lay, founder of Enron Corp., was a grandfather to 12, a husband to the woman who sobbed at his side on the day of his conviction.
And yet his sudden death early Wednesday in Colorado, at age 64, came before he had served a single day of what was likely to be a decades-long prison term for his role in the Enron fraud.
The timing of the death raised intriguing questions of justice and retribution denied — not least, of course, for the thousands of victims of Enron, many of whom had said they were eager to see him live out his remaining years behind bars.
Some observers who admittedly reviled Lay said the death — his pastor said Lay’s heart “simply gave out” — simply shifted the administration of justice from human hands to those of a higher power.
“I hate this happened. I personally wanted to see him go to jail. But maybe this is God’s way of having justice done,” said Charles Prestwood, a former pipeline operator who retired from Enron in 2000 and later lost $1.3 million in retirement savings.
Prestwood said he would not wish death on anyone, but others on Wednesday were less sympathetic. Prestwood, in fact, said he had heard discussions among former Enron workers about throwing parties.
On Internet blogs, discussion ranged from expressions of sympathy for Lay’s family to outright rage that he died without ever beginning a prison term. Lay was to be sentenced in October for his role in the Enron fraud.
Discussions of life, death, vengeance and debts to society are age-old, of course, and scholars from both legal and spiritual backgrounds stressed Wednesday there were no easy answers to the questions raised by Lay’s death.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said that believers may think of the death as “divine retribution” — and that even nonbelievers looking for some solace can know that Lay, even before he was sentenced, “was brought down several notches from where he started.”
“He knew in his lifetime that Enron collapsed on his watch, that he was held responsible, and I’m sure that brought him face to face with reality in a way that he may never have expected.”
Without drawing comparisons to Lay, Harris noted there were many other historical cases of criminals who have met their deaths before fully paying for their crimes — Adolf Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic, killers who commit murder-suicides.
“It’s not the first case or the last case where many will be disappointed,” he said.
From a legal standpoint, prosecutors in the Enron trial had already suggested that the convictions of Lay and former CEO Jeffrey Skilling — who still faces sentencing this fall — sent a powerful message to corporate executives who may be inclined to commit crimes.
“You can’t lie to shareholders; you can’t put yourselves in front of your employees’ interests,” prosecutor Sean Berkowitz said after the May 25 verdict. Prosecutors declined to comment on Lay’s death on Wednesday.
Still, Sherri Saunders, who worked for Enron and its predecessor company for 24 years before she was laid off in 2001 and lost $1 million in retirement savings, insisted Wednesday that Lay “got off easy.”
“To those of us who lost everything, we still have to struggle every day,” Saunders said, adding that she had taken comfort in knowing that “if he was going to die, he was going to die in prison.”
The sentiment was not a surprise, given the near-bloodlust that the public seemed to feel toward Lay and his colleagues after Enron went belly-up in 2001.
“It was evident during the trial that the great portion of the public, particularly in Houston, had an almost insatiable demand for retribution,” said John Coffee, a Columbia University law professor.
Lay himself, of course, always cast himself as the victim of a historic injustice, prosecuted simply because the company he built had failed — failed honestly, he insisted, far from its reputation as a fraud-infested house of cards.
He had portrayed the case as a witch hunt, a prosecutorial “wave of terror.” And on the day he was convicted, appearing upbeat outside the courthouse, he, too, wrapped himself in a religious justice.
“I firmly believe I’m innocent of the charges against me,” Lay said that day. “We believe that God in fact is in control and indeed he does work all things for good for those who love the lord.”