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Enron case, lacking smoking guns, goes to jurors this week

HOUSTON -- The jury in the federal fraud and conspiracy trial of Enron Corp. founder Kenneth Lay and former chief executive Jeffrey Skilling is about to start talking.

But before the panel retires to deliberate, lawyers in the trial, which emerged from one of the biggest corporate scandals in US history, have one last shot at persuading jurors to decide the case their way.

In a dozen hours of closing arguments to begin today, prosecutors and the defense teams have six hours each to boil down the highlights of 54 witnesses, mountains of documents. and hours of video and audiotapes. Deliberations begin Wednesday.

Sam Buell, a former prosecutor, said it will be critical for them to tell a coherent, compelling story. The sprawling nature of the case may leave jurors looking for a big-picture view.

''A jury can't help but feel a little bit at sea. They're looking for a lifeline to pull it all together, and the trial lawyer needs to provide that to them," Buell said.

The government contends Lay and Skilling repeatedly lied to employees and investors by spouting false optimism about Enron's financial health when they knew bad news was brewing and that unsustainable accounting tricks had crafted illusory success in the company's final years.

The two men, who both testified, counter that no fraud occurred, other than a few executives who skimmed millions from hidden scams. They say a lethal combination of bad publicity and lost market confidence fueled Enron's swift spiral into bankruptcy in 2001.

Skilling faces 28 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors. Lay faces six counts of fraud and conspiracy.

The trial lacked obvious smoking guns.

''The bottom line for this case is it is a classic credibility contest," said former prosecutor Roma Theus, vice chair of the corporate integrity and white collar crime committee of the Chicago-based Defense Research Institute.

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