HOUSTON -- "Compare and contrast," read the directions for essay exams in the old college blue books. Compare and contrast the trials of Zacarias Moussaoui and Jeffrey Skilling.

Moussaoui appears to be headed for the death penalty, despite having an alibi of the lead-pipe-cinch variety. He was in jail on Sept. 11, 2001, so we know he wasn't out hijacking jets and killing people. He also appears to be seriously crazy, or at the very least a chronic liar, but that's a separate argument. Although Moussaoui is a member of al-Qaida, there is evidence that they thought he was a crazy screw-up, too. Peter Bergen, author of two books about Osama bin Laden, told The Washington Post, "Even al-Qaida tried to cut this guy loose."

In Texas, we are quite accustomed to seeing people who haven't actually hurt anyone sentenced to death. One classic case featured a kid whose entire contribution to the annals of crime consisted of holding open a screen window. Another kid crawled through said window to burgle a house, surprised the householder, and shot and killed her. The perp then rolled on the screen-holder, who bought the death penalty for abetting in the commission of a felony with firearm.

Nor would Moussaoui's mental state draw much note here. Where's Dr. Death when you need him? Dr. James Grigson testified in hundreds of capital murder cases in Texas and was always certain that the defendants were going to commit more violent crimes and should be executed -- even though he never met with some of them before testifying.

If I were to make an argument against the death penalty for Moussaoui, it would be on grounds of practical public relations. Why let (SET ITAL) this (END ITAL) guy have martyrdom and world fame when we could just put him away?

Meanwhile, back in Houston, we have our laughs, too. Jeff Skilling was testifying along about the great rip-off that almost pushed California into bankruptcy when he observed that the state formerly called "Golden" had a regulatory environment like that of Brazil.

Prosecutor Sean Berkowitz stared at him. "Do you think it was funny what happened in California? You're smiling."

Skilling backtracked and said he regretted joking about it. But isn't it almost funny, what happened in California? Remember the Enron energy traders who thought it was so funny they joked about ripping off "Grandma Millie," the citizens of California, and how unfair it was that they wanted their money back? All that madness when California was caught in this hopeless bind, having to buy energy at grossly inflated prices?

If the California legislators had been stupid enough to deregulate electricity in such a disastrous way on their own, they would deserve being laughed at. But they had help -- from Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. Enron spent more than $345,000 lobbying in California.

Skilling himself testified to utility commissioners that deregulation could save the state $8.9 billion: "You can triple the number of police officers in Los Angles, San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego. The stakes are huge, and every minute that we delay bringing competitive markets to California allows the meter to keep ticking."

Enron was very busy creating the regulatory climate of Brazil nationwide in those years. From 1997 to 2000, 24 states adopted energy deregulation, and Enron repeatedly sent Lay and Skilling to testify. The company spent more than $1.9 million in campaign contributions to more than 700 candidates in 28 states since 1997, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Enron had a huge fleet of lobbyists and even enlisted George W. Bush, then-governor of Texas, to call Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania to lobby for deregulation. According to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, "In early 1998, Enron Corp. secured a $750,000 contract for political operatives tied to (then) House Majority Whip Tom DeLay to secretly conduct an aggressive grass-roots campaign pushing energy deregulation. ... The contract was awarded after DeLay personally recommended to Enron officials that they hire the team of strategists who make up the inner circle of his political and fund-raising machine."

I doubt it will startle any citizen to read that the quality of justice in this country is deeply affected by how much you can afford to pay for it. If Zacarias Moussaoui could afford the jury coach Jeff Skilling has sitting in the courtroom, he'd doubtlessly be less at risk.

But in both cases there is the same feeling that maybe we've missed the point -- the real culprits in Moussaoui case were the FBI higher-ups who stifled the investigation and have never paid any price. In the Enron case, our political system should be a co-defendant -- campaign contributions, lobbyists, sell-outs and all.

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