Jurors said they wanted to believe that Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling did nothing wrong at Enron Corp., but they couldn’t get past overwhelming evidence — and the testimony of the defendants themselves — that convinced them the two men were guilty of fraud and conspiracy.
“I wanted very badly to believe what they were saying,” juror Wendy Vaughan said after the guilty verdicts against Lay and Skilling were announced Thursday. “There were places in the testimony I felt their character was questionable.”
Lay was on the stand six days, and Skilling, 7 1/2. They argued that others at Enron were responsible for events that led to the energy trading firm’s collapse into bankruptcy in December 2001.
“I think both defendants said they had their hands firmly on the wheel, so they didn’t know what was going on?” said Freddy Delgado, an elementary school principal. “Personally, I can’t say ‘I don’t know what my teachers are doing in the classroom.’ I’m still responsible if a child gets lost.
“To say you didn’t know what was going on in your own company was not the right thing.”
Vaughan, owner of a roofing contracting company and a fitness concern, said, “I felt like in the position they were in, it was their duty to know what was going on and they should have gone farther to know what was going on.”
Don Martin, an electrical designer, said Lay’s Enron stock sales irked him. Evidence showed Lay was selling stock in late 2001 while urging employees to buy it, insisting the company was strong and growing. Just before bankruptcy, he used stock proceeds to pay off the mortgage on his home, evidence showed.
“I thought that was a disgrace,” Martin said. “It was horrible people had all their money tied up and they can’t touch it and he’s out paying his house payment.”
“It was very much the character of person he was,” Delgado added. “He cashed out before the employees did.”
“For me, it just defined the word ‘intent,”’ said juror Doug Baggett, manager of a legal department. “It defined intent for many of us.”
Vaughan said Lay’s demeanor on the witness stand, which she described as “with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder,” influenced her decision. “It made me question his character at that point, how controlling he might be,” she said.
But jurors said it was important for both men to testify.
“I would have always had questions if they had not taken the stand,” said Kathy Harrison, an elementary school teacher. “That helped reaffirm it for me.”
Deborah Smith, who was elected forewoman of the jury, couldn’t reconcile Skilling’s testimony with his reputation as an involved manager.
“It’s hard to believe someone, such a hands-on individual, could not possibly know some of the things going on in the company,” she said.
That point was reinforced for Delgado when Skilling stepped off the witness stand and used a complicated chart to explain for them how Enron set its risk margins for trading activity.
“To say he was not involved, that’s not credible,” Delgado said, noting that Skilling was as proficient in the explanation as the risk expert who testified.
Jurors disputed defense attorneys’ claims that the many witnesses who were former Enron executives and who made plea deals or cooperation agreements with the government were influenced by prosecutors.
“It all led to the same conclusions,” Martin said of their testimony. “It all pointed in the same direction.”
“There was too much evidence interlinked,” Delgado said. “Even if the government persuaded them, twisted their arm, whatever. You cannot get all of them to say the same thing and point to the same evidence.”
U.S. District Judge Sim Lake, who presided over the trial, told jurors not to discuss the actual deliberations. They acknowledged, however, the process was emotional and exhausting.
“This is the most challenging and heart-wrenching experience I’ve ever had in my life,” Harrison said, noting the case was so enveloping she sometimes had dreams about it. “I’m grateful to have served my country. I’ve never fought in a foreign country, but I’ve fought on this battleground for American justice.”
“I don’t think this is over,” Vaughan added, referring to the almost certain appeals of the verdicts. “What’s going to be interesting is now that we have a decision, what will actually happen. Will justice really prevail, or will the almighty dollar be winner again?”