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Enron Case Goes to Jury This Week


From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In Houston, federal prosecutors have presented their closing argument in the trial of former Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. Both men face decades in prison if convicted on charges of conspiracy and fraud. Prosecutors started off this morning by accusing the defendants of lying over and over and over again to investors and employees.

NPR's Wade Goodwin is at the federal courthouse in Houston. He joins us now. Wade, after more than three months, this trial is drawing to a close. What's it like there today?

WADE GOODWIN reporting:

Well, the courthouse was packed with people today. Journalists are here from around the world and there are more former Enron employees and regular Houston citizens than I've seen during the entire trial.

A Dutch reporter came up to me during the lunch break and he was a little put out that nobody seemed to be able to accurately tell him how many years in prison Lay and Skilling were going to get if they were found guilty. If you want to see a comedy act, you should have seen me trying to explain the federal sentencing guidelines to a Dutch newspaper reporter.

But you can see just how intense the interest is by the fact that you couldn't find a seat in the main courtroom or the auxiliary courtroom where reporters and spectators watch on closed circuit TV. And if you eavesdropped on the spectators, you realized pretty quickly that Mr. Skilling and Mr. Lay do not have a lot of well-wishers dropping by. Four and a half years later, there's an edge of bitterness that hasn't diminished.

NORRIS: And the prosecution went first with its closing arguments. Who made the case for the government?

GOODWYN: Assistant U.S. Attorney Katherine Ruemmler. It's been interesting to see how the Enron taskforce has divided up this prosecution. After watching Assistant U.S. Attorney Shawn Berkowitz conduct what I thought was an extremely accomplished cross-examination of Jeff Skilling, I thought the government was making a big mistake by not having Berkowitz also cross examine Ken Lay.

But then Assistant U.S. Attorney John Hueston proved himself every bit as capable as Berkowitz when it was Hueston's turn to question Lay. And today neither Berkowitz nor Hueston were center stage, but Katherine Ruemmler. I was a little surprised until the Houston Chronicle reporter reminded me that there are eight women on the jury and I suspect this is a fact that did not escape the attention of the prosecutors.

This is a group of 40-something federal prosecutors who have a lot of confidence in themselves, individually and as a team, and I think the strategy communicates to the jury a subliminal message about the government's case that the quality of their evidence is so strong that their case isn't dependent on the performance of one or two star prosecutors.

NORRIS: And you note performance. There's often a bit of theatrics in those closing arguments. What has the government been focusing on exactly during their argument today?

GOODWYN: Ruemmler focused on the testimony of the government's witnesses, not surprisingly, because they are the heart of its case. You know in a three-month trial, the impact of the testimony of somebody like Ben Glisan, for example. He's the former Enron treasurer. He gave what was potentially very damaging testimony against Lay and Skilling.

The impact can get lost simply because there's been so much testimony subsequent. So Ruemmler's been taking the jury through the high points of their witnesses' testimony and then pointing out to the jury the other testimony and evidence that corroborate that testimony. Connecting the dots. Bolstering the government's witness's credibility while attacking Lay and Skilling as bald face liars. And Ruemmler's theme was that Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling misled their investors, they misled their employees and they misled their board of directors.

NORRIS: Lay and Skilling's names have been connected by an ampersand throughout the proceedings, but the prosecution, it seems, here at the end is focusing a little bit more on Ken Lay than Jeff Skilling. Is that true, Wade?

GOODWYN: Yeah, I agree. I suspect that it's an indication that the prosecution feels more confident in their case against Skilling than they do about their case against Lay. Ruemmler started with Skilling, but I estimate that fully two-thirds of the government's closing arguments so far has been given over to review of their case against Lay.

Contrasting the optimistic statements that Lay made to employees and investors about Enron's bright future to the reality of what he had been told by his own executives about the company's increasing dire condition. And Ruemmler punctuates her points by slamming her hand on the lector and saying, that was a lie. That's fraud, ladies and gentlemen.

NORRIS: Just quickly, Wade, when does the defense get their turn?

GOODWYN: Tomorrow morning. The prosecutors wrapped up the first part of their closing arguments this afternoon. The defense begins tomorrow morning. They've got six hours to divide between Skilling and Lay and then we'll have, I think, a prosecution on Wednesday morning.

NORRIS: Thank you, Wade.

GOODWYN: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Wade Goodwyn at the Enron trial in Houston. You can read his profiles of Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and other players at our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wade Goodwyn
Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.