June 01, 2006
More on the Enron Jury and the Importance of Narrative
Posted by Christine Hurt

Following up on posts by Lisa, Vic, and Larry, I wanted to add some thoughts on how the jury arrived at its verdict.  In order for jurors to believe a defendant's story, the story must be familiar and relatable to them.  As Larry noted, the Enron jurors had no guideposts to imagine the daily business of being the President or CEO of a fast-growing company like Enron.

As a law student, I spent a semester interviewing jurors in death penalty cases as part of Texas' Capital Punishment Clinic.  I was regularly surprised by the heuristics that jurors used to assess guilt.  Most often, jurors stopped listening to the defendant's story because elements of it were not part of their everyday, middle-class life.  Some statements I heard:  "What kind of person is hanging out in a park at 2:00 a.m.?"  "What kind of person hitches a ride to Dallas with someone they just met?"  The oddest shortcut I witnessed was a woman who told me that the defendant was probably guilty because his dad was in jail.  When I asked her why she thought his dad was in jail (he wasn't), she said that they let him out of jail to testify, and he was in his jail uniform.  Unfortunately, he was in his highway construction worker uniform.

I think this phenomenon is at work in white-collar trials as well.  What kind of person has to take out loans from his own company when he has millions?  What kind of person doesn't think it's worth mentioning that he's made an investment in a company that does business with Enron?  What kind of person can't remember if he invested $60k or $180k in it?  What kind of a person calls $22 million a "rounding error" for a company like Enron?  What kind of person has a Ph.D in Economics but doesn't know his CFO is crooked?  The business world where millions of dollars can be a rounding error and where executives with millions also leverage their portfolios with debt is as foreign to a juror as a world where poor young men hang out in parks at night and road trip with people they just met.  Those worlds can't exist, so there must be more there to the story.

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