By Kristen Hays and Erin Mcclam, Associated Press Writers
HOUSTON (AP) - Jurors have to decide whether former Enron Corp. chiefs Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling are criminals. They face a months-long journey into the heart of the scandal-ridden company.
They'll also face questions about just how illusory the "new-economy" powerhouse was in its glory days.
That journey begins Tuesday as prosecutors and defense attorneys launch perhaps the premier fraud case to emerge from the recent era of corporate scandals that started with Enron's spectacular crash more than four years ago.
In six hours of opening statements -- two for the government, four for the defense -- attorneys will introduce jurors to the sprawling allegations against Enron's former top two titans.
Fragile financial structures
The government contends that Lay and Skilling lied about Enron's health when they knew the company's successful image was propped up by complicated yet fragile financial structures that eventually helped fuel its collapse.
Lay and Skilling contend that Enron's success was genuine and that they committed no crimes.
Lay said he was pleased with the panel: "My fate is in their hands, and we'll get on to making the case for my innocence," he said, flanked by his wife, Linda.
Daniel Petrocelli, Skilling's lead trial lawyer, also praised the panel, saying he believed the open-minded jurors would know that "this is a court of law, not a court of public opinion."
Eight women and four men were selected as jurors, with two women and two men as alternates after U.S. District Judge Sim Lake spent Monday individually questioning about 100 potential jurors at the bench.
"I can assure you this will be one of the most interesting and important cases ever tried," Lake told the entire pool.
Opening statements were expected to last through Tuesday, followed by testimony Wednesday. The government's first witness was expected to be Mark Koenig, former head of investor relations for Enron, and one of 16 ex-Enron executives to cut plea deals with prosecutors.
While thousands of Enron employees lost jobs and investors lost billions when Enron crashed in December 2001, the judge made clear Monday that the jury box was not the place to avenge those who lost jobs or investments.
"We are not looking for people who want to right a wrong or provide remedies for those who suffered in the collapse of Enron," Lake said.
The trial is under way just blocks from the former headquarters of the company adored by Wall Street in the late 1990s as a trading pioneer with a lofty stock price. But Enron's fortunes evaporated upon revelations of hidden debt and inflated profits that sent investors fleeing.
Skilling faces 31 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and deceiving auditors for allegedly lying about Enron's financial strength. Lay faces seven counts of fraud and conspiracy for perpetuating the alleged scheme after Skilling resigned in August 2001. Both have pleaded not guilty.