The Formation Of Enron Jurors' Opinions Is Under Scrutiny

The jury box in Judge Simeon T. Lake III's courtroom at the Robert Casey Federal Courthouse in Houston.
The jury box in Judge Simeon T. Lake III's courtroom at the Robert Casey Federal Courthouse in Houston. (By Brett Coomer -- Associated Press)
By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

HOUSTON, Feb. 20 -- Everybody, it seems, has an opinion about Enron Corp.

But the one that counts will be reached by 12 people who will decide the fate of the energy trader's former leaders.

The jurors are an eclectic bunch: eight women and four men, three self-identified Hispanics and one Asian. It is a well-educated panel that includes an engineer, a courtroom manager, and employees of oil industry giants Royal Dutch Shell Group and Schlumberger Ltd.

Four alternates are standing by in case one of the regular jurors becomes ill or otherwise cannot continue through the trial of former chairman Kenneth L. Lay and former chief executive Jeffrey K. Skilling, which is likely to extend at least four months.

The way the Enron panel goes about its work will fuel a long-running debate about the ability of average citizens to assess responsibility for complex business frauds -- and will carry powerful implications for the way prosecutors bring future white-collar cases, according to experts on corporate crime.

"Juries can understand lies, cheating and stealing," said Ellen S. Podgor, a visiting law professor at Stetson University and co-author of a blog on white-collar cases. "What they can't understand is complex accounting practices. You have to simplify it for the jury."

That is exactly where the prosecution has focused its efforts. "It is not about accounting. It is about lies and choices," Assistant U.S. Attorney John C. Hueston told the jurors in opening arguments.

In contrast, defense lawyers have attempted to lead the jury down circuitous paths of accounting treatment, introducing audio and video clips full of arcane detail about complex business issues.

Defense lawyers also have signaled that they may make the jury itself the basis of appeals if the trial goes against their clients. Almost from the start, they raised questions about whether jurors from Houston, where thousands of workers lost jobs and retirement savings in Enron's collapse, could hear the case with open minds.

Daniel M. Petrocelli, lead lawyer for Skilling, and Michael Ramsey, chief attorney for Lay, repeatedly tried to get the case moved out of town. They recently asked the judge to preserve completed jury questionnaires, signaling the process of selecting the jury is an issue they are likely to revisit on appeal.

Several of the 12 jurors and four alternates expressed clear opinions and more than passing familiarity with Enron, according to a transcript of the jury selection process. Their identities have not been released under the order of U.S. District Judge Simeon T. Lake III.

Still, the transcript offers clues about the history and sometimes negative impressions that jurors have brought to the courtroom.

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