Enron Defendants Face An Angry Houston

Enron founder Kenneth Lay speaks at a Houston Forum luncheon Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2005 in Houston. Lay, his CEO successor Jeffrey Skilling and the company's former top accountant, Richard Causey, are scheduled to go on trial Jan. 17, more than four years after the company that made them multimillionaires crumbled. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
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Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.

About 100 Houston residents are scheduled to arrive at federal court Monday to learn whether they will become jurors in the most famous corporate fraud trial in American history. These folks, and about 50 more, are just a fraction of the number of potential jurors initially asked to sit in judgment on Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, the two men who ran the City's former darling, Enron, into the swampy ground. The rest of the potential jurors are long gone — most because they candidly couldn't or wouldn't hide their raw hatred for Enron's leaders.

Identifying such intensely prejudicial feelings among the remaining jury candidates is the main challenge Monday for U.S. District Judge Sim Lake as voir dire begins in the Mother of All Corporate Trials. The rise and fall of Enron is a saga of human failing that Shakespeare himself never could have conjured up. Tens of thousands of Houston residents are direct or indirect victims of the alleged crimes — jobs lost, careers ruined, pensions vanished, stock values wiped out. And Lay and Skilling, almost literally, are the last men standing; the last Enron executives at the center of the scandal who have not pleaded guilty, had their own trials, or cut their own deals with the feds. They are both poster boys for what the company did for the City when times were flush, and then did to the City as it all unraveled.

So it won't, or shouldn't, be an easy process of jury selection. The City of Houston itself is a victim of Enron just as surely as Oklahoma City was a victim of the 1995 bombing. Even now, years later, former Enron employees and stockholders are reportedly seeking psychiatric help over the company's 2001 bankruptcy and its financial and personal impact. But Judge Lake insists that he can select a panel of 12 jurors and four alternates in a single day. It's hard to see how he'll do that, or why he'd even want to tr, given how much is at stake. An extra day or two of questioning, for example, might preclude a reversal on appeal if either of the men is ultimately convicted.

But the judge says he will find in the span of just a few hours 16 fair and open-minded people to serve as jurors in what is clearly the highest of the high-profile Enron trials that Houston ever will see. Of the remaining candidates, defense attorneys concede that 70 or so potential jurors have not (yet) expressed any prejudice or bias towards their clients. So the judge's first job will be to determine whether these 70 not-so-angry-men and women: 1) are lying so they can write a book after jury service; 2) genuinely feel no antipathy for Lay and Skilling despite massive negative publicity about Enron; 3) have been living in places without televisions or newspapers for the past five years; or 4) are playing possum during jury selection so they can "get" the defendants after trial by convicting them.

Judge Lake will do this by asking those potential jurors plenty of pointed questions about their knowledge of Enron and the defendants. Pushed by defense attorneys, who probably won't get to ask many questions themselves, the judge will try to get potential jurors to share their true feelings about the company and its impact upon their lives. And even though the judge and the lawyers won't want to hear juror candidates say they want to see the defendants' heads on spikes, I'm sure Judge Lake and the attorneys will be equally scornful of any juror who claims, under oath, that he or she really doesn't know much about Enron or the two men on trial. Surely, any sentient being in Houston over the past few years ought to have at least formed some sort of an opinion about the rise and fall of what was once the nation's seventh largest corporation. For many years, right until the bitter and costly end, Enron and Houston were like peas and carrots.