July 13 (UPI) -- A federal appeals court on Thursday overturned the corruption conviction two years ago of former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan vacated the conviction of the Democrat, citing a Supreme Court decision involving former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell last year that narrowed the definition of the type of official conduct in a corruption prosecution case. Prosecutors decided not to try that case last September.
Silver, 73, was convicted in November 2015 of obtaining nearly $4 million in illicit payments in return for taking official actions that benefited others. Silver had obtained payments on behalf of a prominent cancer researcher, Dr. Robert Taub of Columbia University, and two real estate developers, Glenwood Management and the Witkoff Group.
The appeals court concluded Thursday that the jury instructions given in the case were erroneous and that a correctly instructed jury might not have convicted Silver.
"We recognize that many would view the facts adduced at Silver's trial with distaste," Judge José A. Cabranes wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. "The question presented to us, however, is not how a jury would likely view the evidence presented by the government. Rather, it is whether it is clear, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a rational jury, properly instructed, would have found Silver guilty."
"Given the teachings of the Supreme Court in McDonnell and the particular circumstances of this case, we simply cannot reach that conclusion," Cabranes added.
In the Supreme Court decision, the justices redefined an "official act" by an office holder that can be the "quo" in an illegal quid pro quo -- and ruled that criminal acts must be concrete, rather than actions arranging a meeting or making a phone call.
"We are grateful the court saw it our way and reversed the conviction on all counts," Silver's attorneys said.
Former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who led Silver's prosecution, posted on Twitter that he thought the "evidence was strong" and that he expected Silver to be "retried and re-convicted." Bharara was fired earlier this year by President Donald Trump.
Silver forfeited his Assembly seat upon his conviction and had been sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was allowed to remain free pending his appeal.
"I let down my family, I let down my colleagues, I let down my constituents," he told the judge at sentencing last year. "I am truly, truly sorry for that."
Prosecutors have not decided whether they will retry Silver, who served for more than two decades as New York's Assembly speaker.