The end of Ken Lay's quest
Enron's former CEO had once hoped for not just a "not guilty" verdict, but redemption.
By Bethany McLean, FORTUNE editor-at-large

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) -- The rise and fall of Ken Lay, the founder of Enron, has often been described as a Greek tragedy. If so, there almost could not be a more dramatic ending than his death this morning of a massive heart attack.

Lay, of course, was convicted at the end of May of fraud and conspiracy arising from the collapse of Enron. He and co-defendant Jeff Skilling were awaiting sentencing in October. Both men were expected to serve at least fifteen years in jail - which for the 64-year old Lay was tantamount to a life sentence.

There's no question that his conviction came as a terrible shock to Lay. As Judge Sim Lake began to read "guilty" to each and every count in staccato-like fashion, members of the Lay family began to sob.

But most people who had been in the courtroom throughout the trial were not so shocked. While Lay's conviction seemed unlikely at the start of the trial, the surprising weakness of his defense, the surprising strength of the prosecution, and a surprisingly hostile performance by Lay himself on the stand increased the odds of a conviction considerably.

In an odd parallel to today's events, some observers blamed Lay's defense problems on the heart problems suffered by his lead lawyer, Mike Ramsey, who was absent from most of the trial after having surgery.

There is also no question that Enron's collapse, the trial and the conviction were all enormously stressful and painful for Lay.

"You are twisting in the wind and it consumes your every waking moment," says a former energy trader who also faced criminal charges from the industry scandals following Enron's collapse.

In the weeks since the end of the trial, a strange question has been rumbling in the background: Was it conceivable that Ken Lay wouldn't appeal? An appeal is standard operating procedure after a criminal conviction, but there were whispers that Lay would not do so.

While Skilling's legal team has filed an appeal on his behalf, Lay's lawyers have filed nothing. Indeed, there has been an odd silence from the Lay camp - odd because both before and during the trial, Lay was outspoken about his innocence.

In the immediate aftermath of his conviction, he repeatedly cited his faith. "We believe God is in fact in control and indeed he does work all things for good for those who love the Lord," he told reporters as he left the courthouse.

Back in January, when the trial began, it was obvious that both Lay and Skilling wanted not just a "not guilty" verdict, but redemption. They both sought to rewrite the Enron story as that of a good company brought down by a hungry press and profiteering shortsellers.

It was a bold and risky strategy, but the two men would have it no other way. Skilling, who had threatened suicide in the past and who many thought was the more emotionally volatile of the two men, has told reporters that he's going to stick around so there will be someone who can chronicle what really happened at Enron.

But Ken Lay's chance at writing another chapter is now over. It remains to be seen, though, if his death softens some of the anger toward him, both in his hometown of Houston and elsewhere. For his family's sake, let's hope that's the case.  Top of page