He looks different now. His tan is gone, and he’s put on some weight. But what really struck observers in the courtroom when Jeff Skilling finally took the stand on April 10 was how different he sounded.
As Daniel Petrocelli, his lead lawyer, began his four days of questioning, the former CEO of Enron came across as oddly nervous, even timid. It was a vast departure from the swaggering arrogance for which he and his company were infamous. He even seemed to choke up when he talked about the demise of Enron.
And as his three children, younger brother, and first and second wives watched from the front row of the spectator gallery, he detailed the toll his long hours took on his family life. Ex-wife Sue Skilling looked emotional as he described how hard he’d worked as a teenager, and second wife Rebecca Carter seemed close to tears as he talked about Cliff Baxter, a former Enron executive who committed suicide after the company’s bankruptcy.
Putting a defendant on the witness stand is always risky. The defense lawyer is trying to imprint a positive first impression on the minds of jurors. Or if not a first impression, exactly–the jury, after all, has been hearing about Skilling and watching him sitting at the defense table for months–then at least an introduction to him as a sympathetic character in a narrative radically different from the prosecution’s.
Truth be told, for much of those four days of direct testimony, the narrative came together quite well. Skilling made the case that he passionately believed he was innocent, responding to Petrocelli’s rhetorical leading questions about specific details of the indictment (“Did you lie about this? Did you steal? Did you have reason to engage in a vast criminal conspiracy?”) by repeating, over and over and over, “Of course not” and “I am absolutely innocent.”