Former New York assembly speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted in November 2015 of public corruption charges including extortion, money laundering and honest services fraud. This week, a three-judge federal appeals panel overturned his convictions on those three counts. A 2016 Supreme Court decision has narrowed the definition of public corruption since his conviction, but the instructions the jury was given in the Silver case reflected the old definition.
Federal prosecutors have said they will retry the case, according to the New York Times. They noted that the appellate panel ruled only that a properly-instructed jury could have chosen to acquit Silver; not that they would. The panel did say that the evidence presented in the original trial was legally sufficient to support a conviction, even under the new Supreme Court ruling.
Silver, now 73, is a Democrat who represented the Lower East Side of Manhattan between 1994 and 2015. His conviction involved allegations that he took official action on behalf of certain people in exchange for some $4 million in illegal fees. In one situation, Silver awarded state grants to a cancer researcher in exchange for money. In another, he apparently helped real estate developers connect with just the right law firm that would support its interests in regards to rent legislation.
Silver case ultimately falls due to Supreme Court ruling for Virginia governor
The jury instructions used in Silver’s case apparently had not been updated after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the corruption case against former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, who had been convicted of public corruption. Similarly to the allegations against Silver, McDonnell had made sure that certain a benefactor received what he needed from the government in exchange for $175,000.
What McDonnell actually did, however, according to the Supreme Court, was to arrange meetings and attend events. These were ordinary political courtesies, not formal, concrete governmental actions or decisions. Therefore, the high court ruled they did not constitute official corruption.
The federal appellate panel found that many of the activities Silver was involved in might be viewed by a jury as ordinary political courtesies. The “language of the instruction at Silver’s trial captured lawful conduct, such as arranging meetings or hosting events with constituents,” the court wrote.
The question before the appellate panel, it wrote, was “whether it is clear, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a rational jury, properly instructed, would have found Silver guilty.”
Since they could not say for certain that any rational jury would have convicted him, it overturned the conviction and sent the case back to the trial court for further action.