At Martha’s Trial, A Froufrou Fawn Nibbles Up the Scenery

Those who attend celebrity trials such as Martha Stewart’s do so with greater and lesser degrees of urgency. At one end of the spectrum, there are the people who need to be there. The celebrity on the hot seat. His or her high-priced lawyers. And the government, or whoever is trying to expose their sins and put them behind bars.

On the other end of the spectrum are the old geezers, those who have made a considered decision that they’d rather sit in court and watch the mighty twist in the wind than move to Boca and play keno at their senior center.

I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle. And not just because I’m ostensibly a member of the press. Most of my fellow journalists would argue that they’re there for a reason. Whether they represent The New York Times or Celebrity Justice -two outlets that attend daily-their readers or viewers depend on them for the scoop. They’re history’s note-takers.

I, on the other hand, attend to some extent as an excuse to socialize with my peers. I have few such opportunities. Most of my days are spent alone in an office that faces a wall. The other urge, though not as strong, is to put into words the championship bout that is a good jury trial.

Unfortunately, on both counts, the Martha Stewart trial has thus far proved something of a disappointment. Thus far, no lunch circles have formed the way they did when I covered the trial of Sotheby’s honcho Al Taubman. I remember fondly several festive lunches at Thai and Italian restaurants behind the Criminal Court Building courthouse with a coterie that included Dominick Dunne and both Ralph Blumenthal and Carol Vogel from The New York Times . Such cliques have yet to materialize at the Stewart trial-or if they have, they haven’t included me.

The trial itself has produced no Perry Mason moments, though I do believe something like a star may have been born in the person of Douglas Faneuil, the Merrill Lynch employee who had the misfortune of manning the phones on Dec. 27, 2001, the day the shit hit the fan.

With his boss, Peter Bacanovic, off in Florida on an undoubtedly well-deserved Christmas vacation, Mr. Faneuil recounted how he fielded calls from ImClone founder Sam Waksal’s frantic daughters, who were trying to dump the shares that their father had transferred to their accounts. The young client associate also heard from Ms. Stewart, en route by private jet to her own Mexico vacation, who wanted to know what the hell was going down.

For those who have just returned from their junior year abroad or have just emerged from a coma, Ms. Stewart is charged with trying to cover up the fact that she sold her shares in ImClone based on inside information that bad news was coming from the F.D.A. about Erbitux, ImClone’s wonder colon-cancer drug, before ImClone plummeted in value.

The government appeared to suffer something of a setback early on when the judge hearing the case, Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, reprimanded the prosecutors for withholding a document that raised questions about precisely who ordered Mr. Faneuil to pass the stock tip along to Ms. Stewart-Mr. Bacanovic or Sam Waksal.

But in the end, the fact that the judge put off the appearance of the government’s star witness for several days while the defense researched the document in question actually worked to the prosecution’s advantage. A couple of nondescript, big-boned employees from Merrill Lynch’s compliance department were served up by the government, sort of as witness-stand seat-warmers. They were the kinds of lads you don’t know from a hole in the wall when they come up to introduce themselves to you at your college reunion, because they spent all four years tethered to a keg or a bong back at their frat house.

Thus, when the lanky, almost lighter-than-air Mr. Faneuil raised his hand and promised to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but, one could almost feel his mere physical presence work on the jury like a double espresso.

If anyone doubts the enduring relevance of a liberal-arts education, they should have watched the 28-year-old Vassar graduate in action. (For good artsy-fartsy measure, he also attended Bennington.)

Mr. Faneuil was unfailingly polite-indeed, he explained technical financial concepts to the jury better and less pedantically than anyone else-and he proved almost unflappable under several days of belligerent cross-examination by Ms. Stewart’s and Mr. Bacanovic’s lawyers, who tried to paint him as a liar.

Perhaps the biggest mystery in this case (besides why someone of Martha Stewart’s wealth would allegedly risk her fortune and her reputation for a few bucks; the obvious answer is because she didn’t think she’d get caught, or because she’s really, really stingy) is why someone with Mr. Faneuil’s froufrou pedigree would have wanted a career crunching numbers in the first place. When asked to identify his current job at the start of his testimony, Mr. Faneuil said he’d recently started working at an art gallery. It half-sounded like he’d entered a witness-protection program; but that was probably what he should have been doing all along.

Inevitably in these trials, one must ultimately decide how sympathetic the defendant is. While that might not be fair-guilt or innocence is supposedly determined by the jury based on an unbiased review of the facts-it certainly matters when the fate of someone of Ms. Stewart’s cultural magnitude hangs in the balance. That may even go double in her case, not just because-unlike, say, Mr. Taubman or a more recent bad guy, Tyco chief Dennis Kozlowski-her persona and her work product are virtually one, but also because people have been saying the most horrible things about Martha for years.

While Ms. Stewart certainly isn’t the first overachiever to be accused of a lack of manners, the problem with claiming that she’s being brought down because she’s a woman-as Rosie O’Donnell did in her one-day star turn at the trial as a “friend of Martha” (one wonders whether other commitments or the advice of counsel, either Rosie’s or Martha’s, prevented her from showing up again)-is that the jury need look no more than 20 feet away to see, in the person of Judge Cedarbaum, a successful woman who seems to have gotten ahead without treating the little people like shit.

I actually met Ms. Stewart, already mildly famous, on two or three occasions in the early 80’s. What struck me back then was how surprisingly underdeveloped her social skills were. She was less mean than driven and clueless. I’ve run into people who have socialized with her more recently and say she’s a different person-self-deprecating and with a good sense of humor. How much this is the benefit of the doubt that one gives to a billionaire (until the share price of Martha Stewart Omnimedia fell due to the current unpleasantness), I’m not sure.

But if Martha isn’t the person portrayed by others on the witness stand, and by her own anhedonic demeanor as she sits at the defense table, perhaps she’d care to testify in her own defense. Speaking for myself and all the other geezers, it would certainly be a day in court worth showing up for.