It was never billed as the trial of the century, but I was still a surprised to see the trial of former Enron executives Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling end on such a seemingly quiet note.
From everything I've read, U.S. district court Judge Sim Lake deserves a lot of credit for that. The trial lasted for more than four months, but the law pundits were surprisingly quiet during most of that time. Right from the trial's start, when Lake said that jury selection would just days, not weeks, the tone was set.
The trial didn't produce any of the showy malfeasance of the Tyco trial, didn't end with a hung jury like the WorldCom case, or contain a shocker ending like when HealthSouth's Richard Scrushy was found not guilty. There wasn't even much will they, or won't they, take the stand suspense. And neither team of lawyers called former chief accounting officer Richard Causey to testify. Causey was originally to be tried along with Lay and Skilling, before striking a deal with prosecutors weeks before the trial's start.
As a member of the media, I feel a little gypped. No news is good news, except when you're a reporter, and there was no doubt both men had outsized personalities that couldn't be contained to courtroom testimony. And the Enron case has had nothing less than a momentous effect on the accounting profession, it seems amazing that the story will end after just six days of jury deliberations, and perfunctory news conferences from everyone involved.
There were a couple of tidbits to take away as comfort. Skilling's lawyers have already said that their client will appeal, and they may very well center on Lake's decision to allow the jury to consider "willful blindness," or the defendents' long-held and much expressed worry that an untainted jury could never be found in the Houston area. The legal pundits have come out and expressed an opinion on the strength of both claims -- which pretty much break down to weak, and weaker.
Lake's allowance of willful blindness, allowed jurors to convict if they believed Lay or Skilling intentionally shielded themselves from information they knew could be explosive. It's the same point that WorldCom's Bernard Ebbers is leaning on in pursuing an appeal of his conviction, and one that probably won't produce any bold headlines.
But I nearly forgot the second bit of comfort I can takeaway (besides of course, the souvenir issue the Houston Chronicle has been shilling). If anything, it looks like the Enron debacle will finally be able to stand for something -- that the court system really does work. Hopefully, years from now, the accounting reforms that also came out of Enron will be able to say the same thing.
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