Martha’s Backfire: ‘Conspiracy of Dunces’Made the Jury Mad

Martha Stewart was tipped off in advance by Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum that she was heading for the big house. O.K., so the information didn’t come in the form of an official ruling or sidebar; it was more a matter of reading the judge’s body language-the tilt of her head in particular.

At around 2:45 p.m. on March 2, shortly after lunch and deep into defense attorney Robert Morvillo’s closing statement, the judge’s eyelids grew leaden and she seemed to struggle to stay awake. Actually, she didn’t struggle much: She succumbed to the urge. And it wasn’t the first time. During closing arguments the previous day by Richard Strassberg, Peter Bacanovic’s lawyer, the jurist appeared to take a power nap, a month of late nights spent reading motions and poring over legal precedent finally catching up with her. Startled journalists packing the federal courtroom passed around binoculars to confirm the siesta.

Judge Cedarbaum’s cat nap seemed to have less to do with advancing age-she’s 74-or a heavy lunch than with the quality of the defense’s case. Mr. Strassberg’s closing argument was a whiny screed spent mostly attacking the government’s star witness, Douglas Faneuil, which only seemed to bolster his credibility.

Mr. Morvillo’s “confederacy of dunces” strategy-pointing out that people as smart and rich and good-looking as Ms. Stewart and Mr. Bacanovic would have hatched a far more polished conspiracy than the one of which they were accused-seemed to insult not only the intelligence of the jury, but also of the judge, who slipped into that silken repose.

On the other hand, Judge Cedarbaum remained fully awake during the government’s closing argument. Though a 1986 Reagan appointee to the bench, her alertness appeared less due to any law-and-order inclination she might harbor than because the truth, all things being equal, is generally more compelling than fiction.

Since the jury handed down its verdict on March 5, finding Ms. Stewart guilty on all counts, jurors have told the media that their decision wasn’t an especially difficult one-they based it on the facts and on damning testimony by Mariana Pasternak, one of Martha’s so-called friends, and by Ann Armstrong, her secretary.

But certainly those 12 men and women, who could not have failed to admire the no-nonsense way the judge ran her courtroom over the preceding weeks, couldn’t have missed Judge Cedarbaum’s AWOL moment-at least those who managed to remain upright themselves. One of the more engaged and dedicated juries in recent memory-at times they looked like a stenography pool, so zealously did they take notes during witness testimony and the presentation of evidence-several of them also rubbed their arms and shot furtive glances at the clock as they, too, struggled to stay awake.

With the decision having been made not to mount a vigorous defense, let alone have Martha take the witness stand, there was an element of anticlimax to Mr. Morvillo’s closing statement-at least as it bled into the afternoon hours and he spoke sotto voce to the jury, as if the intimate pleas of a rotund middle-aged man could overcome the jury’s disappointment from being denied face time with a superstar (especially since Martha’s aloof demeanor throughout the trial almost felt like a stick in the eye).

The argument has been tendered that the lifestyle guru was crucified because she was an alpha female. Indeed, it’s been suggested that the government picked Karen Patton Seymour-an attractive, detail-oriented blonde, Martha without the demons-to lead the prosecution precisely to blunt those criticisms. Perhaps so. But Judge Cedarbaum may have been the role model who best inoculated the government against that charge. Lest the jury be persuaded that Martha’s “problem” personality was the price women paid for success in a man’s world, they had only to look slightly to the right of the jury box to see a powerful, ambitious, hyper-competent woman whose success didn’t require taking any hostages. Martha’s original sin wasn’t that she was a mistress of the universe, but a sourpuss.

Much time and money is spent by the accused super-rich on high-priced jury-selection consultants. Perhaps a little more effort ought to be thrown at teaching high-profile defendants how to put on an appealing game face. O.J. and P. Diddy understood that. The best you could say for Martha was that she was poker-faced. During breaks, when the jury was out of the room, she socialized with well-wishers, but once the trial resumed, she never cracked a smile. In profile-the angle at which the jury most often observed her-Ms. Stewart loses much of her photogenic charm. Indeed, her vaguely masculine jawline and upturned, slightly bulbous nose makes her look a bit like Jughead in the Archie comics, though without Jughead’s redeeming good cheer. It wasn’t hard to imagine her in an orange prison jumpsuit, let alone doing all the horrible things the prosecution said she did, pearls and pashmina notwithstanding.

While the government spent a full month parading the diva’s flawed character before the jury, the defendant sat there impassively, her features registering about as much panic as the average piece of melon. Her supporters might take her impenetrable mien (which didn’t even change when the guilty verdict came in) as proof of her pride and valor, but would it really have killed Martha to show a little vulnerability? The jury did already know her, after a fashion; her company wasn’t called “Omnimedia” for nothing. By ignoring them, she seemed like the imperious Hamptons hostess who turns away when security evicts her gate-crashing neighbors from her cocktail party.

And the prosecution did their best to reinforce that notion, putting on witness after witness who testified to Martha’s petty inhumanity. The only evidence offered to the contrary was Ms. Armstrong’s spontaneous outburst as she recalled receiving a plum pudding from her boss, and a couple of checks that Mr. Morvillo presented to demonstrate his client’s generosity, and which he waved again during closing arguments-one to W.N.E.T. for $500,000, the other to WNYC for $75,000.

If that wasn’t enough, the prosecution also presented evidence that painted the defendant as a world-class cheapskate; James Follo, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia’s chief financial officer, testified that he and his boss battled over reimbursements not only for that cursed Mexican vacation (where Martha spilled the beans about her tip from Mr. Bacanovic to her friend Ms. Pasternak), but also for rolls and coffee, car services and haircuts.

When the defense argued that Ms. Stewart was so wealthy that it was preposterous to believe she’d sweat the few thousand bucks she would have lost by holding onto her ImClone shares, they underestimated the jury’s sense of irony; they had no trouble imagining that someone who is super-wealthy can be also super-cheap.

J.C. Suares, a graphic designer and friend of Martha’s for almost 20 years, recalled how she used to nickel-and-dime Stewart, Tabori and Chang, her ex-husband’s Andrew Stewart’s publishing house, when it was barely eking out a profit back in the early 80’s.

“She’s always been stingy,” said Ms. Suares, who also worked for the company and with Ms. Stewart on the book Outdoor Pleasures . “None of us would think of charging every fucking phone call, every stick of gum, but she did.”

Perhaps a more intriguing mystery to the jury than whether Mr. Bacanovic and Ms. Stewart lied about the circumstances surrounding the sale of her ImClone shares wasn’t why Martha was so cheap, but why she’s so nasty. Mr. Faneuil and Emily Perret, Sam Waksal’s secretary, were hardly the only people she treated like shit; they just happened to be the only people she treated like shit on the morning of Dec. 27, 2001, over the unfolding ImClone debacle. Mr. Suares has a simple explanation for Martha’s acid-reflux personality, and it doesn’t even require probing the diva’s childhood or subconscious.

“One of the reasons she’s always in a bad mood is that she doesn’t sleep,” he claimed. “I once stayed at her house in the Hamptons. We spoke until 2 or 3 in the morning. I went to bed and I could hear her vacuuming. I got up at 6 and she was already up, dressed and working.”

In the mid-80’s, I interviewed Martha for a piece in Cosmo about turning points in the lives of successful women. She matter-of-factly told me that she was a witch. Since the trial began, I’ve mused over what Martha meant by those words. I don’t think she was claiming to be either a good or bad witch, only that she possessed powers far beyond those of ordinary mortals-which has arguably proved true. Perhaps she was also acknowledging what seems all too clear after observing her courtroom demeanor and lack of connection with the jury: that she never really learned how to fit in, never really mastered the social skills that lubricate everyday life.

That’s what made it especially poignant watching her as she watched Mr. Morvillo present his closing arguments-or, rather, as she didn’t watch him. A normal person would probably have focused on her lawyer as he fought for her life, even if she didn’t have the strength to look the jury in the eye. But Ms. Stewart stared straight ahead, only occasionally stealing glances in Mr. Morvillo’s direction, like a small child peeking through her fingers at a horror movie. It was as if she was totally at sea in any situation that wasn’t fully under her control.

Mr. Suares remains mystified that Martha never took the witness stand. If nothing else, it would have allowed her to assert dominion over her own destiny, something she’s proved adept at in the past. “She’s always been able to switch on a smile on a dime,” he said. “She’s yelling at people, in a foul mood, a TV camera shows up and signals her, she looks in the camera and she looks great.

“I said, ‘She’s going to charm the jury,'” he continued. “She could have gone on and acted like what she is-a little girl from Nothing, N.J., a victim of circumstances. She could have brought herself to the same level of the jurors and said, ‘I’m like one of you guys.'”

Mr. Suares believes that it’s Martha’s potential fall from dinner-party grace-not to mention the cratering of her net worth-that will prove the hardest part to take. “She’s totally in awe of money and fame,” he contended. “I do feel sorry for her. Of all people, making Martha go to jail is cruel and unusual punishment. Of everybody in the world, she’s the least prepared to give up what she’s got.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Suares doesn’t believe it’s over yet. He expects her to do everything in her still-formidable power to wrest back control of her life from the lawyers to whom she entrusted it, and who failed her.

“I think she’ll fight it tooth and nail,” he said. “Expect a huge letter-writing campaign.”