And yet hisearly 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.
"I thought his death would soften some of the attitudes toward him; instead, it's had the opposite effect," Bethany McLean, Fortune editor at large, told CBS News' The Early Show.
"I've gotten just a number of e-mails from people who are just enraged that, in their view, Lay seems to be once again escaping punishment, even though you can look at it another way and say now he and his family have really lost anything," McLean said.
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."