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Opening statements are scheduled today in the Federal fraud and conspiracy trial of former Enron executives Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. Both are accused of lying about Enron's financial health. The energy company collapsed in 2001 on revelations of hidden debt and inflated profits.
Ed Mayberry, of Houston Public Radio, reports.
ED MAYBERRY (Journalist, Houston Public Radio):
United States District Judge, Tim Lake, had been saying that he planned to seat a jury in just a day, and he delivered. A panel of eight women and four men will decide the fate of the two former Enron executives. Two women and two men will serve as alternates in what the judge says is one of the most important and interesting cases ever tried.
After the panel was sworn in, Enron founder Ken Lay said outside the courthouse that he's pleased with the jury's makeup.
Mr. KENNETH LAY (former Enron Chairman): We're convinced that we have empanelled a jury that will listen to the evidence, and will make their judgment based upon the facts presented to them in this case and put aside a lot of the preconceived or other notions that they might have based upon previous media coverage or previous conversations with neighbors or all of the other things that have happened.
Mr. MAYBERRY: Lay is charged with seven counts of wire and securities fraud. Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling faces 31 similar charges, including ten counts of insider trading.
The collapse of Enron in 2001 threw thousands of people out of work and wiped out many retirement funds, while some Enron executives cashed in and profited as the company crumbled. Judge Lake asked jurors to not use the trial for exacting vengeance, but keep an open mind based on the facts presented in trial.
Judge Lake spent most of the day individually and privately questioning the 96 members of the jury pool at the bench. Lay and Skilling turned at their tables and faced each one of them, making eye contact as they approached the judge. All prospective jurors had been sent a questionnaire months ago prepared by defense attorneys and prosecutors, in an effort to weed out bias. Little is known about the 16 selected for the panel, because their responses to the 17-page questionnaire have not been released.
Outside the courtroom, Ken Lay's attorney, Mike Ramsey, said he had wanted the chance to question potential jurors, but he's satisfied with Judge Lake's method of picking a jury.
Mr. MIKE RAMSEY (Defense Attorney for Ken Lay): This was a pretty good panel. We got through them pretty quickly and the judge kept us on schedule, of course. My personal preference is to do it myself and to do it over a certain period of time, but it's not my choice. It's the judge's choice.
Mr. MAYBERRY: The defense had fought hard to get a change of venue, because they feared the adverse impact of media coverage on the case. Bt Ramsey says he's relieved with the makeup of the jury that will decide the fate of Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling.
Mr. RAMSEY: Jury selection is the most important part of any case. Picking the right jury is the single most important issue we have. And I think we've been largely, happily surprised today.
Mr. MAYBERRY: Ken Lay says he feels good about his chances.
Mr. LAY: We're pleased with the outcome. And, of course now, my fate, and Mr. Skilling's fate, is in their hands. And we're going to get on with making the case that in fact we're innocent. We're certainly not guilty and we think we're innocent.
Mr. MAYBERRY: Co-defendant Jeff Skilling had no comment, but his lead defense attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, also expressed satisfaction with the makeup of the jury. If Lay and Skilling are convicted, both men face spending the rest of their lives in prison. The trial is expected to last about four months.
For NPR News, I'm Ed Mayberry, in Houston.
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