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Enron Jury Is Selected in One Day as Judge Sets Brisk Pace

Lawyers for defendants Lay and Skilling say they are pleased with the members of the panel.

January 31, 2006|Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Four years after Enron Corp. collapsed in scandal, a jury of eight women and four men was seated Monday to decide whether former Chairman Kenneth L. Lay and Chief Executive Jeffrey K. Skilling were criminally responsible for their company's demise.

The unusually swift jury selection, which took less than a day, set the stage for opening arguments today in the most anticipated and closely watched of the government's recent string of corporate corruption cases. Enron filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December 2001, wiping out more than 4,000 jobs and billions of dollars of stock-market value.

Emerging from the downtown federal courthouse late Monday afternoon into a forest of cameras and microphones, Lay said: "I'm convinced that we have impaneled a jury that will listen to the evidence."

With his wife, Linda, and lawyer, Michael W. Ramsey, at his side, Lay, 63, said that he wanted to "get on with making the case that in fact we're innocent."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 01, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Enron trial -- A photograph that ran Tuesday in Business of former Enron Corp. Chief Executive Jeffrey K. Skilling with an article about the start of his criminal trial omitted a credit. The photo was taken by James Nielsen of AFP/Getty Images.

Skilling, 52, did not address the media throng but stood beside his lead defense counsel, Los Angeles-based Daniel M. Petrocelli, who said: "We're rarin' to go tomorrow morning."

Co-prosecutor Kathryn H. Ruemmler said the government had no comment.

The defense teams had fought hard to get the trial moved from Enron's hometown to a city such as Atlanta or Denver, where fewer people were directly affected by the giant energy trader's downfall. Petrocelli and Ramsey both said Monday that they would have preferred to have had more time to question potential jurors, but also that they were happy with the panel chosen.

"Picking the right jury was the single most important issue we faced, and I think we were happily surprised," Ramsey said. He added that his goal was to get "as well-educated a jury as we could find."

U.S. District Judge Sim Lake, 61, an Army veteran, stuck to his ambitious plan to trim the approximately 100 prospective jurors who arrived early Monday to a final group of 12 jurors and four alternates. The alternates, two women and two men, will step in if any of the principal jurors become ill or are otherwise excused from service.

Little information was available about the background of the jurors. Most of the jurors were questioned in quiet one-on-one sessions at the judge's bench, and Lake did not release copies of the lengthy questionnaires sent out to prospective jurors months ago in anticipation of the trial.

Lake opened Monday's proceedings precisely at 9 a.m. He asked Lay and Skilling, both dressed in dark gray suits and white shirts, to briefly rise and be identified.

"We are not looking for people who want to right a wrong or provide remedies for people who suffered because of the collapse of Enron," Lake told the prospective jurors.

Noting the pervasive media coverage of Enron, the judge added: "No one expects you to be able to blot out everything you have heard or read about this case." However, he said, jurors must make their judgments based solely on the evidence they hear in the courtroom.

In trial that could last four months, prosecutors will seek to prove that Lay and Skilling conspired to fool the public about Enron's deteriorating financial condition and told lies to employees, investors and credit-rating firms. Skilling also is accused of knowingly filing false financial reports.

The defendants have denied any wrongdoing. What brought down Enron, they have said, was a sudden "run on the bank" by creditors and trading partners after the exposure of fraudulent financial dealings by former Chief Financial Officer Andrew S. Fastow and a small group of his subordinates. Lay and Skilling, who could spend the rest of their lives in prison if convicted, contend that Fastow kept the fraud secret from them.

Fastow, 44, who has pleaded guilty for his role in creating off-the-books partnerships used in the alleged fraud, is expected to be one of the principal witnesses against his former bosses.

Legal experts said that although the juror questioning was brisk -- by contrast, seating a jury in Martha Stewart's federal trial two years ago took five days -- it was typical of Lake's no-nonsense approach.

"If they had done it in an hour, that would surprise me, but they've had a full day," said Gerald Treece, associate dean and director of advocacy at South Texas College of Law in Houston. He added that Lake, who gets high marks in surveys of Texas lawyers, "is in complete control of that courtroom."

Michael B. Lee, chairman of the federal practice section of the Houston Bar Assn., said juror questioning was more efficient in federal than in state courts because of the use of questionnaires. In state court, the same information is elicited through lengthier in-person questioning.

People began lining up on Rusk Street in front of the federal courthouse well before dawn Monday for a chance at the 20 seats set aside for the public and eight for the media in the courtroom. An overflow room with closed-circuit coverage was set up on the fourth floor for those who were unable to get a place in the courtroom.

Giant satellite trucks for the TV networks and local news stations have been parked on the street since the weekend. Flimsy tents were set up on the sidewalk overnight for use by broadcast reporters doing reports outside the courthouse.

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Staff Writer Lianne Hart contributed to this report.

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