- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 29, 2006

HOUSTON (AP) — Jury selection begins in federal court today for the trial of Enron Corp. founder Kenneth L. Lay and former Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Skilling.

Of the more than 100 potential jurors called up, attorneys must ferret out a dozen who are not convinced already that the defendants are crooks and liars.

“If we get 12 people who haven’t made up their minds, we like our chances,” Daniel Petrocelli, Mr. Skilling’s lead trial attorney, said last week after a flurry of last-minute efforts to move the trial to escape a potentially hostile jury pool failed.

Michael Ramsey, Mr. Lay’s lead attorney, was less optimistic, calling Houston a “bad venue to try to pick a jury.”

Good or bad, Houston is where Mr. Skilling and Mr. Lay will be tried, four years after Enron collapsed in one of the biggest scandals in U.S. corporate history. The crash left thousands jobless and slammed Wall Street with billions of dollars in losses.

Jacob Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor, said the biggest concern is choosing a panel that aims to draw conclusions based solely on what the members hear in court and avoid getting consumed with participating in the showcase trial.

“These cases are not about books, movies and blogs. You have two corporate executives who are basically putting their lives in the hands of these jurors,” he said.

Jury selection is slated to begin this morning, and U.S. District Judge Sim Lake has told attorneys that he expects a panel to be seated by day’s end.

Judge Lake twice shot down defense attempts to move the trial, not convinced that massive publicity or vitriolic comments from some potential jurors about Mr. Lay and Mr. Skilling on questionnaires revealed a pool too poisoned to be fair.

Mr. Skilling faces 31 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors for reportedly lying about Enron’s financial state before the company crashed. Mr. Lay faces seven counts of fraud and conspiracy for reportedly perpetuating the scheme after Mr. Skilling resigned in August 2001. Both have pleaded not guilty.

The judge also repeatedly rejected defense pleas to allow attorneys to question potential jurors individually. The judge said he’ll do it and will allow attorneys to inquire further based on initial answers.

“I’ll ask the questions in a neutral, non-argumentative manner,” he said.

More intense individual questioning could stretch the process over several days, but it can reveal biases that jurors do not know they have, said Howard Varinsky, a jury consultant who has advised attorneys on jury selection in several high-profile criminal cases, including those against Martha Stewart, Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson.

“The problem with high-profile trials is that you have jurors wanting to be on because it’s their moment to interface with fame,” Mr. Varinsky said. “They fool themselves into thinking they can be fair.”

He said so-called “stealth” jurors who say they can be fair when their minds already are made up are rare. The key is unearthing bias in people who don’t know they are biased, he said.

“If both sides get rid of unfavorable people and they wind up with people in the middle, then the verdict will be based on the evidence. If it’s done incorrectly, cases can be won or lost during jury selection,” Mr. Varinsky said.

Mr. Frenkel said a fair jury is in the government’s best interest, as well.

“The last thing the government wants is a guilty verdict and then to have an appellate court a few years from now saying, ‘Do it again,’” he said.

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