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Skilling Steps Off Witness Stand After Defending His Character

By Alexei Barrionuevo


For eight days on the witness stand, Jeffrey K. Skilling fought to preserve his freedom and to salvage his tattered legacy as a chief executive whose company collapsed in ignominy not long after he left it.

The portrait of Skilling that emerged in his criminal fraud trial here was more complex than the caricature frequently drawn of him as the greedy, arrogant executive with a Darwinian view of the world that transformed Enron from a humdrum pipeline company into an renowned energy-trading colossus. Instead, Skilling showed himself to be a vulnerable, emotional, even affable character who saves his hostility, these days, for the government that charged him with defrauding Enron’s investors.

But jurors in the federal trial here also saw a side of him that had increasingly bothered managers at Enron. This was a man who did not like to be questioned, to be told he was wrong, to be asked, even, just to listen.

And whether Skilling ended up helping himself on the stand more than he hurt his defense will ultimately depend on how the jury weighs those two sides of his personality.

“At the end of the day a trial like this is a morality play,” said Mark C. Zauderer, a white-collar criminal lawyer with Flemming Zulack Williamson & Zauderer in New York. “It is not just what happened, and who said what to whom, but who is an honest person.”

The joint defense team for Skilling and former Enron chairman Kenneth L. Lay, Skilling’s co-defendant in the case, is counting on the more human portrait of Skilling that emerged in his testimony to persuade jurors that he is not a criminal. Instead, his lawyers are hoping, Skilling showed that he was a flawed figure who loved Enron too much to have risked its failure by doing anything illegal.

At the same time, however, the issues raised during an often-sarcastic but skilled cross-examination by prosecutor Sean Berkowitz, legal experts said, could sow doubts in jurors’ minds about whether they should trust Skilling’s blanket insistence that he never participated in any schemes to manipulate Enron’s earnings or cover up losses.